Brainerd latest city to consider ban on homeless camps

The U.S. Supreme Court last week provided local governments the latitude many have been waiting for to help cope with the thorny issue of homelessness. The high court ruled that bans on sleeping and camping in public spaces do not violate an individual’s constitutional rights, clearing the way for local authorities to respond accordingly.

The timing may have been coincidental, but just days after the ruling the Brainerd City Council began considering a potential ban on camps in public parks and property. The Brainerd Dispatch indicated the discussion centered on an ordinance enacted in Rochester earlier this year.

The issue came up during the City Council’s meeting Monday, July 1, when council members reviewed an ordinance from the city of Rochester that addresses homeless encampments and the ability of law enforcement to take any action.

“This is the best (solution) that we can come up with at this time,” council member Mike O’Day said Monday. “The solution isn’t to punish people for being homeless; it’s to encourage them to get help. And we have a lot of that in place right now. I know we have some good programs with them. But this gives our police department a little bit more tools for enforcement.”

Rochester authorities use the ordinance, which includes up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine, to steer individuals to shelters and other public services. Since the ban took effect in March, officers have issued a few warnings, but no fines or citations, which they consider a last resort.

O’Day said he has received an increase in calls and complaints about homeless encampments this year. Police Chief John Davis said the main encampment his officers have seen is by the river landing off Evergreen Drive. Right now, however, that location has been mostly vacated, he said, because of the high water levels in the Mississippi River, causing those without shelter to see other locations farther inside the city. He said he knows of about 15 people considered homeless right now, living in encampments in various places in the city. Police work with Crow Wing County’s homeless response team to provide shelter and other resources to those who are homeless, though Davis noted there are some individuals who will not accept help.

“We really don’t have any enforcement tools if we were to want to regulate and prohibit an encampment developing in the front yard of City Hall or on road right-of-ways or within the parks,” Davis said.

The proposed ordinance would need to be tweaked a bit, but Brainerd city councilors expect to further discuss implementing a ban on homeless encampments later this summer. Not to criminalize homelessness, but to protect the public and help vulnerable individuals get help.