Lake Havasu City leaders watching court ruling on homeless

September 9, 2018

A federal appeals court ruling last week could change how Lake Havasu City treats its homeless population. City officials say they’re paying close attention to developments in the case.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that cities in the Western states cannot prosecute homeless people for sleeping in public places if they have no access to shelter because it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and, therefore, is unconstitutional.

Lake Havasu City does not have a homeless shelter and bans all camping within city limits, except in designated areas with proper licensing.

Only time will tell, however, how the court’s decision will affect Havasu. “At this time, the City is analyzing the recent court decision. Any changes to the Code would be made after careful analysis and consideration,” wrote City Manager Jess Knudson in an email Thursday.

Chapter nine and section 12 of the city code outlines rules regarding camping, which includes overnight sleeping “or other general housekeeping activities” conducted in open-air locations, in or around a recreational vehicle, camper shell, travel trailer, tent or other types of temporary shelter, it states. Furthermore, chapter 11, section six, states that no person shall camp or sleep overnight in city parks or water adjacent to the parks unless they have a permit.

The number of illegal camping arrests and citations issued by the police department was not immediately available on Friday.

Lake Havasu City Mayor Mark Nexsen said he expected the court’s ruling to be challenged.

“There are quite a few holes that I can see, for instance, ... what if the homeless population exceeded the number of shelters, but those are the folks that don’t even want to be in a shelter?”

Nexsen said he expected the city to wait and see what comes out of the decision over time. “If our ordinances require changes to the law we’ll certainly do that but I think right now we’ll take a wait and see approach.”

He added that the city will continue enforcing its camping ordinances because it’s applied to everyone. Sgt. Tom Gray, the spokesman for the city’s police department, wrote in an email that the city’s manager and attorney are reviewing the court’s ruling and that the agency will take direction from them and City Council.

Point-in-time surveys conducted in January 2017 and 2018 show that the number of homeless residents in Havasu appears to be growing.

Conducted on behalf of the Arizona Balance of State Continuum of Care, survey numbers showed 98 people were unsheltered in Havasu the night of January 23 while 40 people reported being unsheltered the year prior. Countywide, the number of unsheltered people increased from 199 to 281.

Some Havasu leaders, such as Nexsen and Councilman Cal Sheehy — who will be sworn in as Havasu’s new mayor at the end of this year — believe the city should not use taxpayer money to fund services for homeless residents. Additionally, they agree that nonprofit and faith-based organizations should carry the responsibility of assisting homeless people and that the city’s role should be connecting them with those organizations.

Councilwoman Michele Lin would like to take it a step further by bringing those nonprofit and faith-based organizations together to discuss and possibly address issues related to homeless residents.

“Watching Kingman and Bullhead City, our neighboring cities, they’ve taken a different approach to their homeless problem, that it’s not going to go away and it does need the city’s help, now this doesn’t have to be financially but it (the city) could be the nucleus of getting all the other organizations together and being on the same page,” she said. “I will share with you that up in (Bullhead) their police department is extremely happy with their homelessness task force because it’s relieved their police officers from having to deal with a lot of homeless problems…so I think it would be a benefit for us.”

Without having read the court’s ruling, Lin said the effects it could have on Havasu makes her “a little nervous” because homeless residents may be able to sleep in public places in a city that thrives on tourism.

Veterans United Arizona President Frankie Lyons, who provides assistance to Havasu’s homeless residents, said Tuesday’s ruling was a step in the right direction and she hopes it will compel the city to address some issues related to the area’s homeless residents.

“If they’re a city that cares, they will do something about it,” said Lyons. “Somehow they have to make affordable housing available…and that would take care of a lot of the issues because once you get a roof over their heads then you can start to addressing the medical issues, the alcohol, the drug problems and get them into programs so they can move on.”

She suggested the city become involved by helping write grants that would help organizations fund services for homeless residents, such as low-cost housing.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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