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Elkhart council debates homeless ordinance to ban camping in public

The city's homeless live in encampments like this one in South Salt Lake.
Cayce Clifford for NPR
The city's homeless live in encampments like this one in South Salt Lake.

Elkhart council members are debating a new way to handle the city’s homeless population.

A new ordinance that’s before the council would allow police to take people found camping on public property and take them to local homeless shelters if there are beds available.

Elkhart city spokeswoman Corinne Straight-Reed said the administration’s goal with the ordinance is keep public spaces clean and safe, while giving those experiencing homelessness the best possible chance at getting help.

The bill bans camping on public property, including alleys, streets, parks and sidewalks. Police could remove individuals found to be camping in public areas once they give 48 hours notice. If the officer determines there’s an immediate safety risk to the person or the public, the person camping can be removed immediately.

Straight-Reed said the city’s goal isn’t to punish the homeless population. If there’s no beds available at the local Faith Mission, the person wouldn’t be moved per the ordinance. Plus, Straight-Reed said the goal is to get homeless people in touch with resources as often as possible.

“Everyone who has been through that process, everyone knows it’s not the first time that they’re offered help that they take it. It’s not the second. It’s not the third. It’s not the fourth. We know that it takes repeated access, repeated opportunities for somebody to take advantage of programs that could help them,” Straight-Reed said.

The proposal relies heavily on the facilities at The Faith Mission, the low-barrier which serves all of Elkhart County. Straight-Reed said the vast majority of people removed form public land under the ordinance would be taken to Faith Mission and that the city isn’t worried about the center reaching capacity.

At a public meeting this week, Faith Mission’s development director Mike Perez said the new ordinance won’t change the organization’s operations and added that the shelter recently opened a day center with lockers where people can store personal items.

“If you show up at our doors and you’re here in Elkhart, we’re going to serve you if you’re homeless,” Perez told council members. “We’re doing our part we feel like. Whether you guys pass this ordinance doesn’t affect Faith Mission and the Way we operate. Because we’re doing this anyway — ordinance or not.”

Elkhart’s anti-camping ordinance follows many cities across the country who have sought to curb homeless people staying on public property. In May, Goshen also passed an anti-camping measure very similar to the one proposed in Elkhart. Federal courts have upheld such bans provided a community has shelter available for the homeless.

Elkhart’s ban is currently still in committee and could come up for a vote at the council’s Aug. 21 meeting, or it could be pushed back for officials to seek more public input.

Council president and Democrat Arvis Dawson said he’s in favor of the proposal.

"I think it's a good ordinance," Dawson said. "It's something that every city is dealing with. If you don't deal with, it'll come back and bite you in the butt. As we move this ordinance forward, we want to make sure it's the best fit for Elkhart. If it needs tweaking, we'll tweak it at the council meeting."

Other council members, like Republican Lewis Ann Deputy, say they’re still undecided.

Marek Mazurek has been with WVPE since April 2023, though he's been in Michiana for most of his life. He has a particular interest in public safety reporting. When he's not on the radio, Marek enjoys getting way too into Notre Dame football and reading about medieval English history.