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City facing fierce backlash over ordinance “criminalizing” homelessness

by Nate Morris
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The City of Tulsa is facing backlash over a proposed ordinance that would outlaw houseless Tulsans sleeping on sidewalks. The ordinance, proposed by Mayor Bynum and Tulsa’s Police Department, will eventually go to a council vote.

If passed, the proposal makes it “unlawful” for anyone to “sit, kneel, recline or lie down” in a public right-of-way. The ordinance only lists exemptions for individuals with a disability, experiencing a medical emergency, attending an event, sitting on city-owned furniture or in a stroller.

People in violation would face a “three-strikes” rule. First-time violators will get a warning, with a $100 fine for their second violation. On their third violation, individuals could face a $200 fine and ten days in jail.

According to the Tulsa World, the Mayor said the measure would “address the growing issue” of homelessness.

However, Housing Solutions Executive Director Becky Gligo says the measure would do nothing to address root causes.

“Homelessness is solved by housing,” said Gligo. “This ordinance does not provide pathways to housing and will not provide relief to businesses or address the root causes that lead to homelessness.”

Ordinance criminalizing homelessness may be unconstitutional

Gligo, who previously served under Bynum as the city’s Housing Director, said similar laws in other cities were all overturned.

“Similar ordinances to this have been introduced in other parts of the country and have consistently been overturned,” Gligo said. “The courts have found that unless we can provide adequate housing and shelter for all of our neighbors, we cannot criminalize their existence.”

Gligo is referring to the 2017 case of Martin v. City of Boise.

The US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a Boise law criminalizing sleeping on the street was unconstitutional. The court ruled that, unless alternative shelter was available, prohibiting unhoused individuals from sleeping outside constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Eighth Amendment.

City of Tulsa does not have enough shelters for those in need, experts say

In defending the ordinance, the Tulsa World reports Bynum said he felt the city has done enough to address homelessness to move forward.

“We are doing more than we ever have, I think, as a city to support homeless outreach and housing,” Bynum said.

“That is why I feel much more comfortable now bringing this forward, because folks do have an alternative.”

The Ninth Circuit Court, however, asserts that there must be an “option of sleeping indoors”. If that option is not immediately available, the Court said assuming unsheltered individuals “had a choice in the matter” is a “false premise”.

Nearly 2,000 people in the City of Tulsa are currently experiencing homelessness, Housing Solutions data shows.

“If we opened every vacant unit we had in the city tomorrow,” Gligo said, “we wouldn’t even scratch it.”

Gligo said that earlier in 2022, more than 200 unsheltered people were in the county jail at one time.

“We know that folx are already being arrested and are already in the jails,” she said. “It’s providing no relief.”

A few hours after the city announced the ordinance, The Black Wall Street Times reached out to the City of Tulsa with clarifying questions. The BWSTimes is still waiting to receive answers to those questions. We will update this article once we do.

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