Juneau Assembly bans homeless from sleeping downtown

Homeless resident Catherine Duncan, far left, appeals to the Juneau Assembly not to pass a camping ordinance that would ban homeless from sleeping downtown on Feb. 13, 2017. (Photo by Jacob Resneck/KTOO)

A divided Juneau Assembly passed a controversial anti-camping ordinance Feb. 13 to ban homeless people from sleeping near downtown businesses.

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In the end, the controversial ordinance passed by a single vote. It will allow police to cite anyone caught sleeping on private property in the downtown core between midnight and 7 a.m.

The ordinance passed in a 5-4 vote. Supporters were: Mayor Ken Koelsch, Jerry Nankervis, Debbie White, Mary Becker and Beth Weldon. Opposed were: Norton Gregory, Jesse Kiehl, Loren Jones and Maria Gladziszewski.

Many downtown merchants have complained of people using shuttered storefronts to shelter from the cold. Those concerns were heard by a majority of the Assembly.

“This isn’t about the people who sleep on the sidewalk. This isn’t about people in Marine Park,” Assembly member Debbie White said. “This is about people who have invested in our downtown community, who employ our neighbors.”

Assembly member Jerry Nankervis echoed that it was a matter of rights of business owners.

“We are trying to reinforce — at least in my mind — that I believe people have private property rights,” Nankervis said, “and just because you’re homeless doesn’t supersede somebody else’s private property rights.”

Juneau Police Chief Bryce Johnson said the ordinance would be a tool which would give us the option of either writing a ticket or taking someone to jail for disorderly conduct.”

It takes effect in mid-April when the city-run Thane Campground reopens.

Opposition came from four Assembly members including Norton Gregory, who noted that many homeless people suffer from substance abuse and mental illness.

“Those are the discussions that I wish we were having tonight and we were talking about rather than passing an ordinance about pushing these people out of the downtown area,” Gregory said.

Assemblyman Jesse Kiehl disputed the police chief’s argument it would improve overall public safety.

Are people better off now in doorways? You bet they are,” Kiehl said. “Because those abandoned mine buildings above Gastineau Avenue are scary places and there are no lights and (the Juneau Police Department) doesn’t drive by and check.”

Merchants who had complained that homeless people had harassed and intimidated their customers and employees were pleased with the vote.

“I personally think this will help and I hope it’s the beginning of a longer process to address all the issues of the homeless in downtown Juneau,” Eric Forst, owner of the downtown Red Dog Saloon, said.

Homeless residents reacted with dismay.

“I’m scared of what’s going to happen,” Lisa Williams, 27, said after the vote. “I don’t know where I’m going to go and I’m afraid to go up to the woods. I have no idea what it’s going to mean for me.”

The ordinance began as an initiative by Juneau Mayor Ken Koelsch, who proposed it after fielding complaints from merchants in December.

“I asked for the no camping ordinance to be drafted and introduced for action,” Koelsch said in prepared remarks. “I accept full responsibility. It speaks to a core value of mine regarding respect of property of others.”

The ACLU of Alaska has cautioned the city that a blanket ban on homeless people downtown would be unconstitutional.

Courts have ruled homelessness can’t be criminalized when the homeless population exceeds shelter space available.

For that reason City Attorney Amy Mead said this ordinance was drafted narrowly to only apply to private property.

So what if the homeless campers move to a public place like Juneau’s Marine Park?

My advice to (the Juneau Police Department) is that it would be potentially unconstitutional to enforce the camping ordinance against those people at that time,” the city attorney said in a brief interview.

The argument over this ordinance may be over.

But both sides here agree that the quandary over Juneau’s homeless problem continues.

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Jacob Resneck is CoastAlaska's regional news director in Juneau.