BRISTOL, Va. (WJHL) – The City Council of Bristol, Virginia will decide on the second and final reading whether an ordinance banning many forms of public camping will become law Tuesday night.
The ordinance would make camping on public roads, sidewalks, alleys and other public pathways a Class 4 infraction.
The Council adopted the regulation at first reading two weeks ago.
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Business leaders in Bristol said the law was aimed at tackling inner-city homelessness, which they say is becoming a public safety issue.
Bristol Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Beth Rhinehart said her office has received several calls from local business owners about homelessness.
“They call and say we need some help,” Rhinehart said. “We have business owners who have never called about these types of issues before saying they have travel consultants who have been coming here for years who have now said I have concerns about leaving my hotel and going to a restaurant .”
Rhinehart said the number of homeless people has been growing and is beginning to cause problems for business owners.
“We have business owners who have honestly had a lot of challenges with the homeless,” Rhinehart said. “They sleep in their doors or use the streets and doors and alleys as public toilets. People who have been aggressive with visitors here.”
Rhinehart said she and a group of business leaders would attend Tuesday’s meeting.
South of State Street in Tennessee, camping on public property is a criminal offense.
Brian Plank, executive director of Haven of Rest, a homeless shelter and food kitchen in Bristol, Tennessee, said the law may play a role in Bristol, Virginia’s homeless population.
“We’ve heard numerous people over dinner say, ‘I’m going to get this meal and then I’m going to go to Virginia, so I don’t have to worry about going to jail and having a felony on my record,'” Plank said .
Haven of Rest serves people like Matthew Carroll, who stayed a week at the shelter after a year on the road.
Carroll said the law would improve public safety, but it could be difficult to educate the homeless population about the change if the ordinance is passed.
He said Bristol, Virginia police must direct homeless people to resources like Haven of Rest and The Salvation Army when people are violating the ordinance.
“Some of them don’t have cellphones or radios. You hear it by word of mouth, and if officers would come and tell you, ‘Well, I apologize that you can’t stay here, but that’s what I recommend,'” Carroll said.
At the ordinance’s first reading, several homeless advocates spoke out against the ordinance, saying it would criminalize homelessness.
Plank spoke out against it at the time and was in touch with some council members about the possible implications of the regulation.
“We just don’t want these people, who are marginalized anyway, to get records from the police that they don’t need,” Plank said. “You are dealing with homeless people who have no money. How will they pay the fine?
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Plank also said the ordinance could drive homeless people onto private property, which could create a bigger problem.
“You’re going to see a lot of them trying to find places to go on private property and just trying to hide,” Plank said. “It’s going to be a situation where you’re probably going to run your police in rags.”
In the long term, Rhinehart said, a coalition has been formed aimed at helping people out of homelessness. The Bristol Homeless Coalition brings together churches, charities, local government, business owners and other stakeholders to develop this long-term strategy.
“We want to reach out to those who are already in need, but also make sure we have policies, programs and the right resources in place to prevent people from ever becoming homeless,” Rheinhart said.
Bristol, Virginia, will hear the second reading of the ordinance at their Tuesday meeting at 6 p.m.