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City holds community conversation over proposed homeless ordinance

In World
April 25, 2024

Apr. 25—Amidst the possible passage of a controversial ordinance affecting the city’s homeless population, the city of Kokomo held a “community conversation” to answer questions, address concerns and hopefully find solutions to what city officials say is a growing issue.

The event, held at Grace United Methodist Church last week, was attended by about 50, including members of the public, Kokomo Mayor Tyler Moore, Asst. Chief Brian Seldon of the Kokomo Police Department and leaders of local churches and nonprofits.

The hour and a half long event didn’t conjure up any definite answers to best deal with the city’s homeless population, but served as an informal networking opportunity between city social services and religious organizations and as a venue for Moore to defend an ordinance that has drawn criticism and statewide news coverage.

The proposed ordinance would ban homeless encampments on city-owned property, such as parks, parking garages or City Hall, and would allow police or other city employees to immediately remove the encampment and any other personal items if the city deems the encampment to be a “substantial risk of harm” to any person or the public and issue citations.

If not deemed a substantial risk, the city must give 48-hour notice it will remove the encampment and any other personal items and leave a note detailing where the items can be picked up.

If personal property is removed and taken by the city, it will store the belongings for not less than 60 days before disposing of them.

Those “indigent” or homeless are exempt from enforcement of the proposed ordinance unless there’s overnight sleeping availability at one of the city’s shelters and the person is provided transportation to said shelter.

If there is space and they refuse to leave, it’s possible those homeless may be arrested for trespass.

MAYOR DEFENDS ORDINANCE

Moore took time during the event to defend the ordinance, pushing back on the notion the proposed ordinance, which will be heard for a second and final reading at the Kokomo City Council’s 6 p.m. Monday meeting, would criminalize homelessness in Kokomo.

“The last thing we want is to have anybody homeless feel criminalized or be sent to jail,” Moore said.

Seldon acknowledged that KPD officers have arrested those sleeping in public property before, but said it is a “last resort” option.

“Believe it or not, we have compassion for these individuals,” Seldon said.

The possibility of arrest has irked some as being needlessly cruel to a population that sometimes deals with mental health issues or other disabilities. It was one of the main criticisms expressed last week by those in attendance and by City Councilman Bob Stephenson, D-District 2, who was the sole no vote on the ordinance’s first reading.

Moore said the proposed ordinance is a formalization of what has already been happening in the city over the last few years and is also a response to feedback he’s received from visitors, both local and not, of the downtown area who have reported to the city of being accosted by people who are homeless when they leave businesses.

“It’s allowing the city to address public safety in our public areas because of what we’ve seen, heard and experienced,” he said, adding the ordinance was modeled by similar actions by other communities.

Under the Moore administration, a previous homeless encampment was established along the tree line of Future Park and was eventually removed by the city. Many of the belongings of those who were staying there were not held onto and were thrown away.

Moore stressed, though, that he doesn’t see the proposed ordinance as the solution to the issue.

“This (ordinance) isn’t a solution,” Moore said. “The city realizes that, and if anybody thinks by us proposing this this is us saying ‘This is how we want to address it, how we’re going to solve homelessness in the city of Kokomo,’ you’re mistaken because we know it’s not. It’s barely a Band-Aid.”

It was that lack of a formal solution or plan of action after the ordinance is potentially passed that drew the harshest criticism from one member of the audience toward Moore.

“I really feel that the process has not been thought out … seems to be rushed and not well researched enough,” the woman, who left early before the Tribune could get her name, said. “I feel like it’s more dangerous than if there was a little more time spent with people who are actually familiar with the homeless community to do a well thought out plan to figure out what would be the best approach.”

IT TAKES A COMMUNITY

Homelessness increased by 12% across the country in 2023 to its highest ever reported level, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Annual Homelessness Assessment Report it submitted to Congress.

Statewide, the number of those experiencing homelessness also increased from 5,449 in 2022 to 6,017 in 2023.

The same is happening locally, officials say.

Howard County and the surrounding counties reported 158 homeless individuals in 2023, 21 of which were unsheltered.

In 2024, that number is expected to increase to around 220 total, with those unsheltered doubling, though the 2024 figures are unofficial, Angie Cisky, co-chair of the Region 5 Planning Council on Homelessness, said.

The figures come from the annual Point-In-Time Count held every year in January. The count offers a snapshot of homelessness on a particular night and is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for every community receiving federal funds for programs to aid the homeless.

The figures gleaned from that day, though, are likely an undercount because not every homeless person turns out for the Point-in-Time count, no matter how heavily it is promoted.

But the figures do show what can be seen anecdotally — the number of those who are homeless in the community are rising and Kokomo is not unique in its way of trying to deal with the issue.

Grants Pass, a small city nestled in the mountains of southern Oregon, where rents are rising and there is just one overnight shelter for adults, also implemented a ban on camping in public spaces and fine of $295 for those who violate the ban.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals largely blocked the camping ban under its finding that it is unconstitutional to punish people for sleeping outside when there is not adequate shelter space. Grants Pass appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing the ruling left it few good options.

The case went in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, where the justices wrestled with complex issue. A ruling by the court is expected by the end of June.

Dennine Smith, executive director of Coordinated Assistance Ministries and co-chair the Region 5 Planning Council on Homelessness, told the Tribune the increase in homelessness locally has to do, in large part, with rising housing costs and an inadequate amount of affordable and low-income housing in Howard County. A mental health crisis and drug epidemic have also contributed.

“There just isn’t enough of it (low-income housing),” Smith said. “And even with the (Kokomo) Housing Authority and the options available and the housing vouchers people can get, it’s just not enough.”

Adding additional low-income houses comes with its own set of challenges. For one, developers often have to be approved for federal tax credits in order to subsidize the cost of construction and then vouchers to subsidize rent once the complex is built and in operation.

That’s if the project actually gets to the construction stage. Many low-income projects face fierce backlash from nearby property owners who often believe the project will lower their property values and bring more crime to the area.

While additional low-income housing is unlikely to increase substantially in the near future, the number of local overnight beds in Kokomo is.

CAM received a financial donation that will allow it to add 10 beds to its current amount, though the nonprofit will need additional funding and people to help staff the overnight shelter.

The Kokomo Rescue Mission is also in the midst of a multimillion dollar expansion that will increase its bed availability to 100-120.

Other groups, such as Helping Our Homies, have also worked with those experiencing homelessness to get them shelter, food and other necessities.

Those in attendance for the community conversation agreed the increase in overnight shelter capacity is just one of many “community conversations” that will be needed to address the city’s growing homelessness issue in a substantial way.

“It alone speaks volumes that you all are collectively coming together because I’m not going to be able to do it by myself,” Moore said. “There’s nothing I can do by myself, but we can all do it with His help.”

Tyler Juranovich can be reached at 765-454-8577, by email at tyler.juranovich@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter at @tylerjuranovich.

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