Correction: A previous version of this story stated the council voted a second time due to backlash from nonprofit groups. The second vote was a routine process that happens when a vote is not unanimous.
The Kalispell City Council voted a second time on an ordinance that makes motor vehicle lodging a civil infraction.
The council approved the ordinance again 5-3 on Oct. 7 three weeks after its initial vote in favor on Sept. 16.
Beginning in December, motor vehicle lodging will be a civil infraction. The ordinance gives the Kalispell Police Department authorization to enforce the law, which is already banned under city code.
Public complaints about tourists sleeping in recreational vehicles originally prompted the ordinance. But nonprofit groups expressed worries over the unintended effects on the homeless population who live in their vehicles. Nonprofit leaders say homelessness is often caused by lack of affordable housing.
Several nonprofit group representatives attended the Sept. 16 meeting, and even more spoke out on Oct. 7, including the directors of the Abbie Shelter and the Samaritan House. All individuals who publicly commented opposed the ordinance.
Miriam Mauritzen, a First Presbyterian Church reverend who has experience working with homeless populations, said she fears the ordinance will leave homeless individuals without a safe place to reside due to consistently full shelters.
“I also want to acknowledge that this is a second reading and I think it’s fairly atypical for the city council to have second readings,” she said. “Perhaps this might be a cue that more time is needed and to find a better solution.”
Multiple nonprofit groups viewed the ordinance as unconstitutional and referred to a case involving Boise, Idaho. An appeals court overturned Boise’s law banning sleeping in public places, ruling that such laws violate the Constitution if no shelter space is available.
“The problem very often is where are they going to stay?” said Jennifer Ball, a social worker at the public defender’s office. “If I don’t have somewhere to put them, they remain in jail.”
However, City Attorney Charles Harball addressed the comparison and explained that Boise’s ordinance was a criminalization of vehicle lodging and camping, while Kalispell’s ordinance is a civil infraction. That means Boise’s population went straight to jail whereas Kalispell’s population would not.
“This is quite radically different,” Harball said.
Kalispell’s ordinance outlines a process. When a person is suspected of vehicle lodging, law enforcement will make an inquiry about their social needs, and if the officer decides to issue a citation, the individual will go in front of a judge, Harball said.
Despite the crowded room of nonprofit workers advocating for the homeless population, the council determined vehicle lodging was a public safety issue.
“This is a zoning issue that we’re looking at that’s already not permitted (and we’re) trying to find a way to make it work for our residents,” councilor Phil Guiffrida said. “It’s an issue with public safety, it’s with sanitation, it’s with neighborhood density.”
While the city approved the ordinance, Mayor Mark Johnson said the meetings have opened up a discussion for Kalispell’s homelessness. Johnson says he will organize a mayoral task force to address the issue.
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