Is sleeping a crime?

Ban on camping within Flagstaff city limits upheld by city council

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — The Flagstaff City Council upheld the ban on camping on public property within the city of Flagstaff May 8, citing fire danger as one reason for the ban.

Residents opposed to the ordinance said it places more of a burden on the most vulnerable members of the community, many of whom are Native American, especially as forests close because of fire danger, leaving that population with fewer places to go.

The ordinance defines camping as the use of any city property or any undeveloped city property for living accommodation purposes such as: sleeping, storing personal belongings, making a fire, using a tent, shelter or vehicle for sleeping and cooking, other than a barbecue pit provided by the city.

The ordinance distinguishes between sleeping and napping by saying napping is the “brief and intermittent use of city property for recreational purposes during daylight hours.”

In his presentation before the council, Interim Police Chief Dan Musselman said upholding the ordinance was important because it was a valuable tool to combat fire danger. He said repealing the ordinance would reduce the reason to conduct flyovers or wood patrols and said other violations like littering are hard to enforce.

On June 3, the Flagstaff Fire Department (FFD) responded to reports of a possible wildfire burning in the wooded area near South Fourth Street. Four tents and various camping supplies were found near the origin of the fire, though the cause of the fire is still under investigation.

“The FFD would like to remind its citizens that camping within the city limits is not allowed and that we are still currently in Stage 3 fire restrictions,” said the Flagstaff Fire Department.

Even with the fire danger, the city attorney, Marianne Sullivan, said officers are required to issue warnings for first offenses and provide a list of resources for people experiencing homelessness. If the shelters are full or if a person is fleeing a dangerous situation, they can use that as a defense against the citation.

Since 2013, 23 people have been arrested and 266 warnings have been issued for camping on public property.

Klee Benally, a local activist, said he is concerned with how unsheltered people are treated on the streets of Flagstaff.

“There is no compassionate way to enforce the anti-camping ordinance, period, he said.

Benally said the Flagstaff Police Department was misleading the public and the council by saying the camping ordinance was a matter of ecological and fire prevention was outrageous.

“Life is already hard enough for our unsheltered relatives on the streets,” Benally said. “And this city continually fails to provide adequate treatment and services for our relatives. Fire prevention is one thing. A law that explicitly criminalizes and allows for those most vulnerable, especially in the winter, to be subject to enforcement discretion of law enforcement officers is another.”

Benally said laws already exist to address fire prevention. He said the camping ordinance is anti-homeless and anti-humane. Benally said in the years before the camping ordinance, there was not a rush of people who wanted to camp on public property in the city.

“Native people already face disproportionate arrests and racial profiling,” Benally said. “This law is unjust, redundant and harmful and it must be done away with immediately. I’m not interested in promoting a kinder, gentler ordinance. Sleeping is not a crime.”

Several other people who identified as indigenous spoke against the ordinance, as well as a few others who spoke in favor of keeping it saying that they were concerned that people would camp everywhere on public property if the camping ordinance was repealed.

Jody Clements said she breaks the camping ordinance every day by sleeping in her RV and while she can buy food and clothing, she does not have enough money for rent. She can’t live in her RV on private property, campsites are too expensive and she can only camp on National Forest property for 14 days.

She said that while one of the issues the police department points to is prevention of litter, there is a double standard for homeless people and tourists, like broken sleds in the winter.

“Messes left by wealthy people are less objectionable than messes left by poor people, I guess,” she said.

Councilwoman Eva Putzova was the only member to speak in favor of getting rid of or amending the ordinance. The city council pointed to many services available to the homeless population and decided to have a future discussion about further ways to help the homeless population.

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