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Tulsa City Councilors agreed Wednesday to hit the pause button on a controversial ordinance that would affect homeless Tulsans. The ordinance, slated to go to a vote on September 14th, has been postponed indefinitely.
All of the council members present expressed concern that the ordinance, first proposed in May, could have “unintended consequences” that would harm unsheltered Tulsans.
The ordinance would implement harsher penalties for blocking a public right-of-way. Individuals blocking the right-of-way could face fines, court summons and potentially even jail time.
At a meeting Wednesday morning, councilors expressed a desire to find solutions to issues of trespassing and blocking sidewalks. However, this particular ordinance, several councilors suggested, would not resolve the current issue.
City Councilors voice concerns over ordinance and its potential affect on homeless and unsheltered Tulsans
Councilor Crista Patrick said the biggest issue facing her district was not unsheltered Tulsans, but rather other individuals choosing to commit more serious crimes.
“The frustration is not with unsheltered citizens,” Patrick said in the meeting. “Everybody wants those who need help to get help”.
Councilor Phil Laken, who represents District 9, says he wants to find a way to protect private property while simultaneously ensuring unsheltered Tulsans aren’t thrown into the justice system.
“We have to ensure that we try to handle this in the best way possible so that we don’t cause these people to become too involved in the justice system,” Lakin said.
Kara Joy McKee, Councilor for District 4, voiced similar concerns, particularly for homeless individuals struggling with mental health.
“Heaven forbid we end up with someone who is upset and belligerent and refusing to leave a sidewalk,” McKee said. They could end up “in prison when the problem is they they’re having a mental health crisis.”
Councilors propose amendments, working groups to find alternative solutions
District 7 Councilor Lori Decter Wright has been working to amend the ordinance by leveraging standing trespassing laws. Decter Wright suggested reducing the ordinance’s penalty for blocking public right-of-way, while tiering penalties for trespassing offenses on private property. Under Decter Wright’s proposal, if an unsheltered person trespasses on private property more than once, the municipal court system would have the ability to route them to a diversion program where they can access additional resources for support.
Decter Wright also raised a concern first voiced by Councilor Mykey Arthrell in the Spring regarding freedom of speech. As currently written, the ordinance could cause peaceful protestors to face citations and penalties for blocking the sidewalk.
In Wednesday’s meeting, Councilor Arthrell also said he’s been receiving emails from constituents who formerly experienced homelessness.
Arthrell said “they feel like this is something that would have really hampered their ability” to get back on their feet. He said “potential criminal charges” could be detrimental to unsheltered Tulsans accessing key resources to find stability.
Several council members expressed a desire to form a working group in order to better engage stakeholders across the city. It is unclear when the ordinance may be brought back up for a vote.