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Oklahoma City Council votes not to consider an ordinance that would have criminalized homeless encampments

Jamie Glisson / Focus: Black Oklahoma
The proposed ordinances classified any use of fabric, cardboard or other materials for living accommodations as a homeless encampment.

A set of ordinances to criminalize living in homeless encampments will not receive further consideration from the Oklahoma City Council.

Councilman Mark Stonecipher proposed the ordinances at Tuesday’s city council meeting, with fellow councilmembers Todd Stone and Bradley Carter as co-sponsors.

The ordinances would have allowed police to fine or arrest people who did not comply when asked to leave a homeless camp. According to the ordinance’s language, the use of a heating device would be enough to qualify an outdoor place as a homeless encampment. If an unhoused person was arrested at a camp, the police would not do anything to protect their possessions from damage or theft.

During the council meeting, Stonecipher referenced ordinances in Houston and San Diego that he said were similar to his proposals for Oklahoma City.

But as other council members and residents pointed out, Houston paired its anti-encampment ordinances with $200 million to invest in programs that provide services and shelter for unhoused people. A report from the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston and Harrison Counties found that those programs decreased the city’s homeless population by 20% over two years.

“These cities have totally different opportunities and resources compared to Oklahoma City,” Councilwoman Nikki Nice said. “There have been different strategies that have been the cause of why these numbers have decreased. And it’s not been to criminalize.”

Two hours of public comment followed the council’s discussion. The vast majority of community members who spoke were against the ordinance. They cited concerns about the morality, legality and efficacy of criminalizing people in homeless encampments rather than funding programs to house them.

Many public commenters used Bible verses and faith-based arguments to express their disapproval. Some mentioned the U.S. Department of Justice’s ongoing investigation into Oklahoma City and its police department for possible violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act in how the city responds to mental health crises. Others voiced concerns that the ordinances would funnel unhoused people into the Oklahoma County Jail, which just had its 15th inmate death of the year.

Among the community members who commented was Dan Straughan of the Homeless Alliance.

“Any given night in Oklahoma City 1,400 people experience homelessness,” Straughan said. “Across our 8 shelters, we have 850 beds. That’s the mismatch. That’s why there’s 471 unsheltered homeless—those people have literally nowhere to go.”

Mayor David Holt said, although he normally votes for any ordinance to move on to the next stage of consideration, he would not do so for this one.

“I just don’t believe that this was brought forward in the way that our best work is usually done,” Holt said.

Stonecipher moved to postpone the vote to a future council meeting. Nice moved to strike the ordinances from consideration. After some discussion about which motion had precedence, Stonecipher amended his motion and asked for his ordinances to be stricken. The council unanimously voted to remove them from consideration.

Holt commended people in the room who have worked to provide support and services to unhoused people.

“If this conversation continues, I’d love to see those subject-matter experts who have demonstrated their effectiveness and expertise as an integral part of future conversations,” he said.

Graycen Wheeler is a reporter covering water issues at KOSU as a corps member with Report for America.
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