Aberdeen considers ordinance to fine people living in tents

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The City of Aberdeen is considering an ordinance that would fine homeless people $50 for living in tents or other “temporary dwellings.”

The measure before the Aberdeen City Council has the support of the police chief, who sees it as a way to get people out of homeless encampments and into shelters and services.

“We’re trying to prevent people from living in facilities that are really uninhabitable, that are unsanitary and unsafe for the people who are living there,” said Police Chief Henry Trabert.

Advocates for the homeless say that regardless of the intention, fines aren’t an effective way to get the homeless off the street.

“When you charge fines to people who are homeless, those fines are barriers, and grow to be bigger barriers to getting back into housing and obtaining gainful employment,” said Antonia K. Fasanelli, executive director of the Baltimore-based Homeless Persons Representation Project. “We’re disappointed to see the bill introduced.”

Bill McCarthy, executive director of Catholic Charities of Baltimore, said his organization shares the goal of making homelessness “rare and brief,” but criticized the Aberdeen proposal.

“Criminalizing homelessness and fining people who lack permanent shelter is not the way to achieve this goal,” McCarthy said. “Instead, we need to work together to identify and address the root causes of homelessness, including the shortage of jobs that pay a living wage, the lack of affordable housing in our area, and insufficient access to mental health and addiction recovery services.”

The Aberdeen proposal would prohibit people from living more than 24 hours at the same place in a tent or other temporary structure. Mayor Patrick McGrady said he hopes it would nudge people to seek help.

“If they can’t live in a tent, then they’ll do something else,” McGrady said. “We hope they take advantage of the voluminous <FZ,1,0,8>opportunities they have.”

Trabert said homeless people camp in a small wooded area along Route 22 in Aberdeen. He said the threat of a snowstorm earlier this month illustrated that people in the encampment could find alternative housing. Before the storm arrived, he met with people there and urged them to find other shelter. The camp was soon cleared out.

McGrady said that experience demonstrated people living there “could get the help if they needed it.”

The Aberdeen City Council could vote on the ordinance at its April 10 meeting. It would take effect 20 days later.

The proposal is being met with skepticism by some in Aberdeen, a community of about 15,000. Ruth Ann Young, a former member of the City Council, questioned the practicality of levying fines against people who are homeless.

“These people are obviously struggling with money — otherwise they wouldn’t be where they are,” Young said. “If they can’t come up with the money, how will you handle that? They will eventually become criminal offenders. If so, we’re going to have to pay for them to be incarcerated.”

Trabert said that’s not the intention, though he acknowledged he doesn’t know how enforcement would work.

“We don’t expect to get any real fines out of these people. We know they don’t have money,” he said. “And we don’t want to see them incarcerated, that’s not the idea.”

He’s hoping to get help from the faith community, and said the county and state have resources available — including shelters and outlets such as the Harford Community Action Agency.

“As we go along we can find ways that we can help the homeless community and also let [others] understand why people become homeless so maybe we can change the perception some people have of the homeless,” Trabert said.

“It’s our duty [as public officials] to make sure we take care of the people who can’t take care of themselves,” he said.

City Council member Sandra Landbeck, one of two sponsors of the bill, said it will give the city teeth to break up homeless camps.

“Now, we’re unable lawfully to go in and say, ‘You need to move,’ ” she said. “This ordinance will give us that. We can say, ‘You can find someplace else, you just can’t stay here,’ ” she said. “It gives us authority to treat the problem rather than enable the problem.”

There are 187 homeless people in all of Harford County, according to a survey conducted by the county in January. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the homeless population in Maryland was 8,390 in 2015.

Ordinances aimed at homeless people are not new. In the fall, the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty launched Housing Not Handcuffs, a campaign criticizing laws in jurisdictions across the country that prohibit actions related to homelessness — from sleeping and “camping” in public places to begging for food.

“These sorts of ordinances are just completely backwards,” said Megan Hustings, director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, based in Washington. “It’s fruitless and it’s a waste of the city’s time and the community’s resources.”

Hustings said fines for such activities can lead to more interaction with the criminal justice system, creating obstacles when people need to pass background checks for housing and jobs.

Trabert said Aberdeen’s goal is to get people into housing. He said if the ordinance can motivate people to establish a stable residence, it can be the first step toward employment.

“Maybe we can help them just enough along the way, to get that job to help them get back on their feet,” he said.

Jerome Reyerson, director of Harford County’s Department of Social Services, said the measure could work for Aberdeen, but he foresees it “moving the issue from one geographic location to another.”

“They’ll move across the Aberdeen line to another and become a county issue. If that’s what they want to do that’s fine, that’s their call, but I don’t think it addresses the key origin to the problem of homelessness,” he said.

“I understand what’s leading Aberdeen to make this move, but these are individuals ... with mental health issues, drug addiction, and some who just choose to live this way,” Reyerson said.

“What is the next step to instill hope for this population?” he said. “That’s a rhetorical question, but one that needs to be asked.”

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