Ordinances that ban camping and defecating on public property were approved Tuesday by the Wichita City Council, moves that police say will open the door for them to find the homeless services and a place to live.
The prohibition also includes defecation on private property in view of others.
Previously, the city only had ordinances preventing camping in parks and urinating on public property or on private property in view of others.
Police had requested the ordinances so its homeless outreach team could approach homeless people and try to get them the help they need or a place to live.
“Homelessness is not a crime,” Deputy Chief Nelson Mosley told the council before it voted 7-0 to approve the ordinances.
The ordinances apply to all people, not just the homeless, he added.
The no-camping ordinance’s preamble states it’s not the city’s intent “to punish any citizen based solely upon such citizen’s status alone.”
In January, Wichita police adopted an approach that tries to connect homeless people with needed services instead of writing tickets for such offenses as panhandling or jaywalking. The effort came in response to Wichita’s growing problem with homeless people camping in the downtown area, said Sgt. Brett Stull.
Hull heads up a three-officer Homeless Outreach Team, or HOT, that is patterned after the program that has been operating for four years in Colorado Springs.
During that time, Colorado Springs police have not arrested a homeless person for violating that city’s no-camping ordinance, said Nate Schwiethale, an officer on Wichita’s outreach team told the council.
“The ordinances are a tool,” Hull said. “It’s a way for us to get our foot in the door. Homeless is a growing issue. We have to be proactive or it could become too big for us to handle.”
The need to add the defecation ordinance is an indicator of how much the homeless issue has grown, city officials said.
Wichita’s ordinance gives a person 48 hours to remove items from the campsite. If that doesn’t happen, HOT will return and try to find them a place to live, Schwiethale said.
He said every effort is made to work with the homeless people and not just force them to move.
“We’re working with those people to find them a job or a place to live,” Schwiethale said after the meeting. “That takes time. We use a lot of discretion.”
The outreach team will be placing a man who has been homeless for 20 years in a home this Friday, he said. The man has been living on the steps of the Central Library.
Violating the no-camping ordinance is a misdemeanor. Violating the ordinance could bring a fine up to $500 and/or a jail sentence up to 30 days, but a Municipal Court judge could waive the fine or jail time and order community service. The defecation ordinance carries the same penalty and option for the judge.
Courts have ruled it’s illegal to put a person in jail only because they don’t have a place to live, Schwiethale said.
Groups, such as the Boy Scouts, may also apply for a permit to camp on public property, City Manager Robert Layton said.
On the defecation, council member Lavonta Williams said, “That’s a harder incident to observe (than camping) unless an officer is there. We have people who drink a little too much, and they’re out there doing there own thing.”
Mosley, the deputy chief, said police have “evidence” of defecation but an officer would have to see it happening to make an arrest.