After almost two hours of public comment on the topic and disagreements between council members, the Metro Council approved an ordinance banning camping on public property under the threat of criminal penalty Wednesday evening.
The council approved the ordinance specifically targeting homeless people in East Baton Rouge Parish with a 7-5 vote.
The seven republicans on the council voted to approve, while the five democrats opposed the ordinance.
The ordinance prohibits camping in any publicly owned area with fines up to $250 or court-ordered community service. As originally constructed, the ordinance would have allowed law enforcement to put people in jail for violations for up to 15 days.
However, Councilwoman Laurie Adams, who authored the ordinance along with Councilman Dwight Hudson, amended the ordinance to remove the possibility of jail time.
The ordinance was also amended to require officers to first confirm there is available bed space at emergency shelters in the parish before issuing a court summons.
According to Carrie Patterson, continuum of care manager for the Louisiana Housing Corporation’s Louisiana Balance of State Continuum of Care, there are much more people experiencing homelessness than there are beds in the parish.
Patterson said there are 205 shelter beds in the parish but when a point in time count was done in February 2022, more than 676 people were experiencing homelessness either by sleeping in the available shelter beds, in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) shelter beds or on the streets.
“It is widely recognized that pit counts are undercounted because it is impossible to have enough organization to get into all the nooks and crannies where folks hide to keep themselves safe to count everyone,” Patterson said. “We have twice as many people experiencing homelessness in Baton Rouge than we have shelter beds. There is not adequate emergency shelter.”
Representatives with Southeast Louisiana Legal Services talked about the spike in evictions across the area since the pandemic began.
Representatives from Southeast Louisiana Legal Services (SLLS) talked about the dramatic increase in eviction rates in the area since the pandemic began.
SLLS provides legal help for low-income people so that they can access safety, housing, income, education, medical care, and more.
“We had a shockingly low number, maybe 45 requests in 2019 for an eviction in East Baton Rouge Parish for legal assistance,” said SLLS Executive Director Laura Tuggle. “Now we have as of the end of last year, we had almost 700, which is a 1,461 percent increase in people calling our office, coming to us asking for legal help.
“What is a looming crisis that is upon us shortly is the end of emergency rental assistance programs that have kind of staved off a lot of evictions and not knowing what’s going to kinda be that next step,” she added. “In fact our own funds for the majority of some of the work that we’re doing ends at the end of the year as well.”
Adams, who voted to approve the ordinance insisted it is meant to show compassion to the homeless.
“My overriding concern is that living like this, there’s no dignity like this,” Adams said. “It’s important that we have guardrails on society where we point people to help, and sometimes it’s really painful and really hard to point people in the right direction and towards help. We need for them to understand that in this parish we want everybody to be on a path to wholeness and healthiness. That’s what this is about. It’s about getting people to accept help so that e can get them to be in the place where they want to be and where we want them to be.”
The ordinance will go in effect 30 days from the council’s approval.