As part of a concentrated effort to help people experiencing homelessness, the city of Duluth last week took laws off the books that made it illegal to panhandle and sleep in a car.
Neither law had been enforced lately; several court decisions around the country called anti-panhandling laws into question, and police generally didn’t bother people sleeping in cars unless there was a complaint, said Joel Kilgour, a member of the Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights Coalition, a Duluth group that formed several years ago.
But the move to get rid of the laws is part of a series of efforts sparked by coalition members, including several people who had experienced homelessness, to establish some standards “so they could carry out basic life-sustaining activities without fear of harassment or arrest,” Kilgour said.
Court rulings in other states have been interpreted to find that government can’t constitutionally stop people from panhandling, advocates said.
“You can’t tell somebody that they don’t have the right to talk to somebody else,” explained Kilgour, who is also a volunteer member of Loaves and Fishes, which provides temporary lodging.
Instead, bad behavior can be regulated, advocates said. Panhandlers may not threaten, harass or stalk people, for instance.
Many people who find themselves homeless also resort to sleeping in their cars temporarily, advocates know.
So an ordinance against camping, lodging or residing in a motor vehicle was not repealed, but modified to remove the terms “camp” and “lodge,” said City Council Member Joel Sipress.
The intent is not to legalize turning a vehicle into a residence, he said: “We just wanted to make sure we were decriminalizing sleeping in your car.”
Kilgour said some people prefer to sleep in cars instead of shelters because they feel safer, can keep their families together and maintain a shred of dignity when they’ve lost everything else.
Police Chief Mike Tusken said policing has changed over time, and officers now approach homelessness differently.
They no longer deliver “move-on” orders, forcing law-abiding people from public spaces. They may perform welfare checks on people sleeping in cars, he said, and will offer resources on finding shelter, meals, legal aid and other services.
“Fundamentally, I think we need to do better by people than having them live out of their cars,” he said.
Overall, the city is trying to provide an environment that makes it easier for people experiencing homelessness to get back on their feet, leaders said.
The city administration has been asked to come up with a plan for hygiene facilities so that people have a place to use the bathroom, wash up or shower, for instance.
“We want to work together as a community, support each other and treat everyone with dignity and respect,” Sipress said.