Advocates for homeless protest possible city camping ban

Katie Rydlizky, left, Amanda Marse, middle, listen as Pooka Campbell, right, reacts while saying words for those experiencing homelessness during a prayer vigil outside City Hall on Tuesday, February 19, 2019. Advocates gathered together with Pastor Josh McCarty to say prayers in light of a proposed ordinance that would ban camping on public property within the city. City Council will be voting on the issue Wednesday. Campbell is an advocate for Solidarity Not Charity and the Frozen Hobo Rescue.

A handful of people gathered Tuesday evening outside Grand Junction City Hall to give voice to those experiencing homelessness ahead of a possible change in city code.

Local homeless advocates and church leaders called for the vigil in response to an agenda item planned for tonight's regular meeting of the Grand Junction City Council, where councilors will be voting on an ordinance that will effectively ban overnight camping in parks, along streets and in parking lots, and along the Riverfront Trail.

"I think we are all in agreement that we are gathered here today because there is a great concern for our neighbors without a home, who could be greatly affected by the passing of this new city ordinance," Josh McCarty, pastor with River City Church, said with candle alight.

"We all have great worth and value — and that's everyone," he said.

McCarty reminded the small group who braved the chill that Jesus was himself born homeless. Jesus, McCarty noted, also died without possessions, without clothes.

"Whether you're a follower of Jesus or not, the question is, will we care for those who are in need?" McCarty asked.

"We care about our neighbors, whether they have a house or not," he said.

City officials have cast the issue as one of public use and safety, however.

The city says, "Camping in public areas … interferes with the right of others to use those areas for the purposes for which they were intended," according to a staff report prepared for councilors and the public in advance of tonight's meeting.

"It is the intention of the ordinance to prohibit use of public property for the purpose of maintaining a temporary place to live," the report reads.

City officials cited increased costs for policing, maintenance, sanitation and cleanup, and animal control, which they attribute to camping in undeveloped areas of the city without proper facilities.

The purpose of the ordinance, the city says in the report, "is to assist in maintaining the city in a clean, sanitary and accessible condition; to protect the health, safety and public welfare of the community; and to preserve, protect and enhance the natural resource of the Colorado and Gunnison rivers for many recreational and other proper uses."

Riverfront areas are popular for camping, where many choose to stay overnight and then walk into the city to access services during the day.

The city's proposed prohibition maintains people's right to rest or sleep in public parks during the day.

Protecting the constitutional rights of the homeless is a fine line that the city has walked before, previously passing ordinances to limit panhandling that were challenged and ultimately scrapped after opposition from groups like the American Civil Liberties Union.

The proposed camping ban "recognizes that when overnight shelters are full, a homeless person who has no access to private spaces has no alternative but to sleep in a public place," according to the report prepared for councilors.

City Council will hold their regular meeting tonight, which begins at 6 p.m. at City Hall, 250 N. 5th St. The proposed camping ban is the third and final item on the council's regular agenda, and there will be an opportunity for the public to offer comment.

Tuesday night, though, vigil participants offered prayer for members of City Council, wishing them "wisdom, clarity, compassion and grace" while they consider the camping ban.

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