PENDLETON — At a Tuesday meeting, the Pendleton City Council unanimously approved an ordinance that will affect the way the city’s homeless lodge for the night, but removed some key language.
The ordinance amends Pendleton’s noncriminal offenses law, repealing the city’s ban on loitering.
But the ordinance also introduces new language, adding prohibitions against camping on public property, sleeping in public buildings, or sleeping on benches overnight.
But after hearing multiple citizens voice their opposition to the ordinance, the council removed several sections relating to public camping and removing campsites while leaving the rest intact.
The council simultaneously gave themselves a 90-day deadline to find a solution to the camping issue.
City Manager Robb Corbett viewed the ordinance as a proposal that was fair to all sides.
“I just see this as a way of trying to set some basic rules that try to allow all of these people in the community to coexist,” he said. “We’re not necessarily excluding the homeless, just trying to set some fair parameters.”
City Attorney Nancy Kerns said the amendment made the noncriminal offenses ordinance less restrictive because it dealt with specific activities rather than the overly broad prohibition against lodging in a place not intended for that purpose.
Kerns said anyone in violation of the amendended ordinance — punishable by a fine of up to $500 — would not be sent to jail for not being able to pay the fine.
Police Chief Stuart Roberts said police don’t often cite people for sleeping in a public space, instead using the law to compel the homeless to move.
“We need rules just as they need rules, so everyone knows what the playing field is,” he said. “That’s the reality of this conversation.”
Although several city staff members defended the ordinance, it did not enjoy much support from the public, many of whom were board members for Neighbor 2 Neighbor Pendleton, the nonprofit that manages the warming station and day center.
Neighbor 2 Neighbor Pendleton Executive Director Dwight Johnson said he’s seen homelessness from multiple perspectives as both a volunteer that helps the homeless and a sergeant in the Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office.
He estimated 80% of the growing number of homeless people that use Neighbor 2 Neighbor’s services deal with mental health or drug addiction issues.
“At the end of the day, they’re people,” he said. “They’re a marginalized part of our society. I don’t think there’s any homeless here tonight. No one’s here to speak for them, except for us.”
Although he understood the concern about the number of homeless people sleeping in parks and other public places, he didn’t think the ordinance was the solution.
Multiple councilors openly wondered what role the city should play in combating homelessness, especially considering the depth of the issue and the city’s other financial commitments.
Even as the council voted for the ordinance sans the public camping language, Councilor McKennon McDonald suggested one question remains unanswered.
“The biggest issue for me when we’re discussing this is, really, where do they go?” she said. “Because there isn’t a clearly defined answer. Because they’re not allowed to camp in a public place and they’re not allowed to camp in a private place. Where do they go?”