Police in Grand Junction will no longer be ticketing people camping in parks and other public spaces when there is no space in nearby shelters.
This puts the city in line with federal law, after a 2018 decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that punishing people for camping in such spaces when shelters are full is a violation of the Eighth Amendment.
Wednesday night’s unanimous decision by the Grand Junction City Council to amend the city’s camping ordinance comes after nearly two months of conversations and negotiating with a coalition of local groups and individuals invested in helping homeless people.
Scott Aker, with the Grand Junction Housing Authority, said some tickets may still be issued when shelters are below capacity, but he believes police will try to find solutions beyond penalizing people.
“Law enforcement officers will reach out to community resources whenever possible to try to find alternatives,” he said. “ I think everybody agrees that writing a ticket isn’t going to solve the problem.”
Aker, along with around 30 other individuals and groups, were in talks with City Attorney John Shaver after a contentious city council meeting Feb. 20, attended by some members of the public who incorrectly believed that Grand Junction was instituting an overnight camping ban.
That ban is already in place, and the new amendment gives people experiencing homelessness more leniency.
During Wednesday’s meeting, council member Chris Kennedy said confusion over the ordinance amendment has actually helped in the long run.
“Looking back on it now, it may be one of the best things that could have happened was that misunderstanding,” he said, “because from my point of view, more people have become engaged on the issue.”
Kennedy added that he hopes momentum doesn’t stop here, and that the city and local organizations are able to continue to work together to help people experiencing homelessness.
Advocates say they’re working to increase capacity and services at local shelters, though they caution shelters are not a suitable fit for everyone.
People who have been barred from shelters because of dangerous behavior or other issues can still be ticketed under the new amendment. Anyone under 21 will not be placed in a shelter for adults and won’t be ticketed for camping when the city’s sole shelter for young people is full.
The council also adopted a sunset clause, which means this amendment will expire in 36 months unless it is revisited.