A homeless person's sleeping bags and bedding under a bench. Photo via Shutterstock
A homeless person's sleeping bags and bedding under a bench. Photo via Shutterstock

A rural town’s proposed “camping ban” would criminalize homelessness. These local leaders are fighting back.

ADRIAN, MI — Five minutes outside Adrian in any direction are soybean fields. Situated on the border with Ohio, just south of Ann Arbor, Lenawee County is far from the urban sprawl to its north. But like anywhere in America, homelessness remains an issue the community faces. 

As the largest city in Lenawee County, the majority of the homeless Michiganders in Lenawee are found in the parks and trails of Adrian. 

Though the city does have shelters and accommodations, space in those shelters was inadequate to care for those displaced residents even before the pandemic. The coronavirus exacerbated that shortcoming when capacity of the shelters had to be slashed to one-quarter of what it was before to prevent the coronavirus from tearing through Adrian’s population. 

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But, for the most part, locals recount the largely positive role those displaced Adrian citizens have played, acting as volunteer stewards of the parks in which they reside. They clean up litter, tend to pathways, and otherwise keep the area maintained. Some outliers to this naturally exist, but by and large Adrian’s disadvantaged have been the best citizens circumstances allowed, residents told The ‘Gander. 

That made the effort to criminalize homelessness in Lenawee County all the more jarring.

The City Commission of Adrian, MI. Photo courtesy the City of Adrian.

Making Poverty a Crime

Technically, the policy Adrian is considering is a “camping ban,” as outlined in the proposed ordinance. By camping, the city means more obvious things like setting up a tent but also less obvious things, like possession of a blanket or eating in parks. 

The city isn’t actually targeting campers, and it was never in doubt when commissioners spoke about the problem they sought to address Sept. 8 at a city commission meeting. Their goal was to eliminate homelessness in Adrian by making activities associated with homelessness a crime.

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That essentially makes picnics ‘camping’ for purposes of the ban. But the city allows local police to make that judgment call — if a person with a blanket and a sandwich in Riverside Park camping in violation of the new ordinance or having a picnic is a determination police will make.

That’s a problem, William Garcia told The ‘Gander. Garcia is running for state representative to serve Adrian in Lansing and said locals describe him as “Adrian’s Leslie Knope.” And he took issue with the proposed ban on multiple fronts. 

“I could be eating a sandwich, and a member of our community that’s homeless could be eating a sandwich literally at the same table. We could be sitting at the same table, doing the same thing and one of us gets arrested and the other does not.”

William Garcia

Garcia also questioned the wisdom of a civil infraction, usually consisting of a fine, against people who cannot afford housing. By February 2021, the tickets for a civil infraction will need to offer alternative sentences for people unable to make payment, but those also will inhibit the ability of unhoused Michiganders to attempt to better their situations. Those may include jail time, Garcia explained.

Garcia also was unimpressed with the city’s argument that they can’t afford to dedicate more resources to housing the homeless because the city was too cash-strapped to afford ambulances. 

Besides that, Garcia warned that the city was pursuing an agenda in essentially banning homelessness that would almost certainly lead to a costly lawsuit, and it’s a lawsuit cities like Adrian have already lost. 

The National Homelessness Law Center takes legal action to defend the rights of the unhoused. Photo courtesy NHLC.

The Lawsuit Adrian Can’t Run From

The National Homelessness Law Center sent a letter to the Adrian City Commission strongly dissuading them from pursuing the camping ban, and making it clear that their entire purpose as an organization is to sue cities like Adrian for implementing policies like this.

“Despite the harsh reality that homeless people in Adrian have no choice but to struggle for survival in outdoor public space, the proposed Camping Ban would make the biological needs to eat and sleep illegal throughout the entire City at all times of day.”

National Homelessness Law Center Senior Attorney Tristia Bauman

“This cruel result is not tolerated by the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which forbids punishment based on a person’s involuntary status and/or conduct inextricably linked with that status,” NHLC senior attorney Tristia Bauman wrote to the city in a letter provided to The ‘Gander. 

Supporting their claim that the proposed policy is an Eighth Amendment violation, the NHLC pointed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Martin v. City of Boise, where a very similar camping ban was abolished for violating the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, which in this case is any punishment for actions basic and necessary for sustaining life like eating and sleeping. 

The Supreme Court declined to take up an appeal to this ruling, so while it doesn’t directly apply to Michigan the high court has indicated that it doesn’t see enough disagreement about it to take up the challenge. Which, often, means lower courts will heavily consider the Ninth Circuit’s decision when evaluating the lawsuit NHLC clearly warned Adrian’s city commission would result from the camping ban. 

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“Given the serious constitutional concerns raised by the proposed Camping Ban as applied to homeless people in Adrian, the Law Center urges the City to vote ‘no,’” Bauman’s letter to Adrian cautioned. “Doing otherwise risks violating the constitutional rights of homeless people in Adrian, and risks exposing the City to expensive litigation in defense of a misguided Camping Ban.”

Bauman encouraged the city to contact her and the NHLC to discuss other solutions to addressing the needs of unhoused Michiganders, some of which she outlined in her letter. 

Adrian, though, remains on course for the ordinance, and for the lawsuit that will almost inevitably follow. 

In fact, Adrian’s city attorney Tamaris Henagan defended its stance arguing that this merely codified in law the practices the city had already been engaging in.

“Cool, you’ve been violating the Eighth Amendment since 1972, that’s great, … Not only is it immoral, even if you don’t care about homeless people — which is awful and you should — you can’t pass this without the threat of litigation. If you’re a city that can’t afford an ambulance how are you going to afford a lawsuit?”

William Garcia
Will Garcia, a candidate for state legislature, is leading the charge against Adrian’s attempt to criminalize homelessness. Photo courtesy Garcia for State Rep.

Adrian Encourages Residents to See Both Sides of Criminalizing Poverty

Although public comments largely resisted the attempts to ban homelessness and multiple protests of the policy have slowed the pace at which Adrian’s city commission is proceeding, the course doesn’t seem to be significantly altered. In fact, multiple commissioners said Sept. 8 that they had to weigh the livelihood of the unhoused residents against the complaints that they exist. 

“I ask the community for a little bit of faith and trust that we are taking into consideration all sides,” said city commissioner Brad Watson. “Hopefully we come out with a resolution that’s someplace in the middle, that shows how much work we’ve put into this fully understanding that everybody’s not going to be happy with the outcome.”

Garcia asked what meeting halfway on an Eighth Amendment violation even meant. 

“I have no idea what that means. What is half of a human right? … I don’t want them voting on this in two weeks, I want them to kill it. I want them to go back to the drawing board and start working on housing first.”

William Garcia

But Watson was hardly alone. While some commissioners seemed more sympathetic than others, some were outwardly aggressive both toward the population and to their supporters attending the city commission meeting. 

“I and the rest of the commissioners are not ogres going after these people,” said Adrian commissioner Lad Strayer. “This issue would have never happened if people who were at the parks or on the Kiwanis Trail hadn’t made a total mess of things.”

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Garcia pushed back on those attitudes however.

“Literally everything that [the commissioners] said has nothing to do with the ordinance,” he said. “The ordinance itself is just making it an infraction to sleep while homeless, to eat while homeless, to live while homeless.”

So, Garcia said, opposition to the homelessness ban won’t slow down. A protest with opponents of the ban is scheduled for Sept. 20, including an order of “social justice nuns” who intend to participate and supporters of unhoused people from across Michigan. All leading up to the next city commission meeting on Sept. 21, where Garcia and other supporters of homeless Adrian residents intend to again speak out. 

“You’ll definitely want to be there for the 21st meeting,” Garcia teased.