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On the Streets: Wooster Considers Impact of Potentially Fining Homeless Population

Next Monday, Wooster City Council is slated to hear a third reading of a proposal that could lead to fines for people who are homeless.

If passed, the law would allow police to charge homeless people with a minor misdemeanor if they refuse to go to a shelter. 

The largest shelter in the city, with 46 beds, is run by the Salvation Army — and it’s only been full four times over the past 14 months.

They provide about 3,000 meals a month from an old soda pop bottling plant. On weekends, they serve only the people who are living at the shelter. This past Saturday, Julie Davis was there with her husband and two kids.

'A stepping stone'
Davis looks at the shelter as a stepping-stone to getting her own place. Her husband just got a new job at an auto parts company, and they hope to move out before the end of the year.

But she knows there are people who aren’t so lucky.

“Criminalizing homelessness wrong," Davis says. "That’s as bottom-of-the-barrel as you can get, to me. And then fining them? I mean, we don’t have money for our housing yet [and] now you’re going to give me another bill? And you’re going to put something on my record? Okay, now you’re going to affect my job search.”

Davis is not currently working because she’s expecting a baby in March. Her friend at the shelter, Tabitha King, is also currently unable to work full-time since she’s slated to have shoulder surgery next week. She says the new law, if passed, would make it very difficult for people in her situation.

“You want to talk about criminalization, be out here getting some real criminals. Not innocent homeless people just trying to stay warm on the edge of the street. They’re not doing anything wrong.”

Downtown disturbances
The ordinance comes after some downtown merchants expressed concern about homeless people causing disturbances. Dani Savage opened the Urban Cottage home furnishing store a decade ago, and says for her, the issue isn’t even specifically homeless people.

“We have people being approached for money. We have people that have crazy tattoos, they’re yelling profanity – it’s off-putting to customers. And more recently, I would say in the past year, I’ve actually had – not homeless, they may also be homeless – but I’ve had drug addicts who are high on drugs and affecting my business. Scaring me and my customers.”

The Salvation Army shelter does not allow drug or alcohol use. Under the proposed ordinance, a citation would not be given if a person is restricted from staying at shelters, or if the shelters are full. City Law Director John Scavelli told council last month that the legislation was drafted to be “legal, compassionate and effective.” In a previous interview with WKSU, he said the ordinance is not about penalties.

“The point of the ordinance is to communicate with those who are in need and to help them engage with the services that are available to them. That they may not know about or may have trouble getting to.”

Increased presence
In addition to the proposed ordinance, Dani Savage says police have also increased patrols in the last few months.

“And since they’ve done that — I’m almost afraid to say it out loud — but since they’ve done that, we haven’t seen the same issues that we were seeing. So just police presence down here, regularly, seems to be effective.”

Savage says the city also needs a “No Loitering” law, and that combined with increased patrols might be a good first step before passing the ordinance. The city has already received a letter about the legislation from the ACLU. Joe Mead worked on the letter as a cooperating attorney with the ACLU. He’s also an assistant professor at Cleveland State University’s Marshall College of Law.

“I have not seen anything exactly like this anywhere, to my knowledge, and certainly not in Ohio. Sometimes cities will pass laws that criminalize shelter in a tent, for example. There’s no evidence whatsoever that these actually do anything to reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness.”

Mead says cities like Wooster should explore why homeless people are not staying in shelters, whether it’s due to past trauma at a shelter, or a conflict with its rules or religious values.

“Low-barrier shelters are the sort of thing where there aren’t a lot of requirements to get in, and they’re open to everybody. That can provide a life-saving tool to help people who are really at-risk of danger, especially in cold winter months.”

One model Mead says is working is Second Chance Village in Akron. The tent city for homeless people has been operating for almost two years. But it’s been met with legal challenges from neighbors and the City of Akron, which issued notice last week that the property needs to be cleared within 30 days. A post on Second Chance Village’s website over the weekend said the tents will come down Jan. 4, but they will continue working with the Summit County Land Bank to find permanent housing for their residents.