Des Moines Council bans homeless encampments within 1,000 feet of schools

by Jack Mayne

Despite a warning that it was unconstitutional to infringe on freedom of religion, the Des Moines City Council effectively banned most of the city’s churches from housing homeless encampments because they must be 1,000 feet from any school.

The Council on Thursday night (Nov. 5) passed the new city rules on such encampments 4 to 2 with Councilmember Luisa Bangs and Mayor Dave Kaplan voting no. Councilmember Bob Sheckler was absent due to illness.

Earlier in the meeting, the Council heard Des Moines Municipal Court Judge Lisa Leone give her first report on the city court and that the Redondo Boardwalk should be open for public use by next summer.

The Councilmembers were also scolded by a resident for cutting off a citizen who was commenting at the previous meeting.

Proposed homeless rules
Denise Lathrop, the city’s community development manager, discussed the city’s proposed ordinance on religious facilities having homeless encampments on their property. The Washington Legislature in 2010 required local ordinances on possible encampments but city officials said there are no such requests at this time.

Lathrop said the one in 20 students in the Highline School District are homeless. The recent homeless count came up with over 10,000 people homeless countywide.

Seattle and King County just recently declared a state of emergency for the homeless, she said.

“There is often the perception that all the people that are in homeless camps are mentally ill or have substance abuse problems,” Lathrop said. “It often is that the people we tend to see because they are more out in the open.

“A lot of it is has to do with housing affordability … particularly in our region. The permanent solution is, obviously, is to provide housing. It has been proven to reduce homelessness and it becomes less of a tax burden for our taxpayers.”

Lathrop said that while encampments are not a solution they are a safety net.

The state law on encampments on the grounds of churches says the city cannot impose restrictions “other than those necessary to protect public health and safety.”

Des Moines does not have any rules regarding homeless encampments so one could be set up without city approval unless an ordinance is passed.

Lathrop said the proposed Des Moines ordinance would limit the number of potential encampments to one each 365 days and it could not last more than 92 days. The ordinance would require notice to nearby businesses or homes and hold a public meeting during the planning process.

Religious groups would have to apply 75 days before the encampment was to begin and notices sent out of nearby residences and businesses. Inhabitants of camps must have valid IDs and go through sex offender and warrant checks before they can stay.

Resident Kevin Isherwood wondered if the valid ID was the reason people in other areas are not allowed in encampments and Lathrop said there were no specific reasons in the data.

Could be near schools
The proposed ordinance did not have provisions banning homeless encampments near schools because most of the city’s churches would have not have been able to hold encampments, a violation of freedom of religion standards.

But Deputy Mayor Matt Pina, wanted camps to be banned within 1,000 feet of “an elementary or secondary school” despite freedom of religion concerns.

Mayor Kaplan had concerns because 17 of the 24 religious institutions in the city would be forbidden to have homeless encampments “and they may be the only ones who have the space to accommodate it.”

Pina said he understood the right of a religious organization to host the sites, but it was “our responsibility to ensure that the children in our community are safe.”

Councilmember Victor Pennington, who said the state law banning anyone under 18 at homeless encampments “makes a statement”, seconded the motion, adding the city should be proactive and not reactive.

“If we get challenged then we will defend it – they shoot us down? I don’t know,” Pennington said.

Councilmember Luisa Bangs asked what options do the 17 churches excluded have.

City Manager Tony Piasecki said, “Nothing, they can’t have them … if you include this buffer, then these 17 cannot (have a homeless encampment.”

The Council voted 4 to 2 to add the 1000-foot ban, with Kaplan and Bangs voting no.

‘Very offensive’
Resident Mary Eun, said she watched the recording of the Oct. 29 meeting and “the first thing that happened was to cut off Rick Johnson because he was talking too long.

“I just thought there needs to be a process improvement.”

Eun said there was nothing at the public podium to show the time elapsed and suggested systems that many organizations use to keep speakers aware of time limits, “graceful, non-offensive ways to give people a warning.”

“What I saw in last week’s recording was very offensive,” she said, adding that Johnson and others have been pressing their cases to the Council.

“They have not disappeared and they won’t disappear,” Eun said, adding that four minutes was given to another speaker later on.

She asked which member of the Council would be he first to apologize to Johnson, no one did.

Kaplan said he agreed there could be a better way to warn people that their time was up, maybe a clock on the speakers lectern.

“So that it is not so offensive to the folks who are doing what you want your citizens to do in voicing what is going on and bringing awareness…

Furlough list needed
Kevin Isherwood said he wanted to clarify his suggestion the week before about a city employee furlough. There should be a list of “truly essential employees, those charged with the safety and security of the city” and if there is not a list, Isherwood said there should be.

He said bargaining units should realize that “something is better than nothing and if we continue on the path that we are going as demonstrated at the last meeting on the budget, we are going to be bankrupt and no one’s going to have a job.”

Isherwood said Councilmember Sheckler has been leaving after public comments and before the budget is discussed.

“What I want to know is if he feels comfortable voting on an agenda item as important as the budget when he’s not been part of the public discussions on that topic,” Isherwood said.

Judge’s Court Report
Des Moines Municipal Court Judge Lisa Leone gave her first report after taking office last May.

She said she planned to build a model court which means increasing access to the court without having to come into the to the courtroom by finding and filing items on line. People will be able in some cases to file statements and photos on line and receive a letter of the judge’s decision.

Judge Leone said she goes into the community to talk with groups about what the court is and how it works.

“It is important that it be transparent and accountable which I and the court will try to be at all times,” Leone said.

Caseload trends show a downward trend beginning in 2012 for both criminal and civil infractions, Leone said.

Criminal cases fluctuate over time due to economic conditions, crime rates, police staffing changes, populations and changes in laws. The judge said there have been more criminal trials of late and with the addition of police officers she expects and increase in demands for trials.

She said she has had a number of calls from officers in Des Moines and in Normandy Park for warrants, noting that the officers of both cities had “done an incredibly professional job.”

Boardwalk next summer
Transportation Engineer Andrew Merges said it is hoped to get the Redondo Boardwalk in operation next summer and the storm damage a year ago. The repair design has been nearly completed and pending some final decisions and permits before starting construction. The boardwalk will become one of color-stained concrete to look like boards.

He said the cabling and posts will be stainless steel so it doesn’t rust and break, but also to lessen the danger from logs impacting the walk supports.

There will also be low level lighting at deck level.


38 Responses to “Des Moines Council bans homeless encampments within 1,000 feet of schools”
  1. John Castronover says:

    At city council this evening, Council Members Melissa Kellogg Musser, Matt Pina, Vic Pennington and Jeremy Nutting made a bold move against City Staff and Mayor Kaplan, they voted to amend the homeless encampment ordinance to include a 1,000 foot zoning restriction from any public schools. This has not been done before in the State of Washington, and I applaud their actions in taking this bold step. Please take a moment and send them a letter of gratitude, even if the State overturns this just know that they share the same concerns as many of us.

    A sincere Thank You to our councilman who voted for this change, this is a very good sign for our city, hopefully the current Go Along To Get Along is about to Chang at city hall.

    • fed up says:

      Proving yet again that this council doesn’t care about those in need. Disgusting.

      • SaveDesMoines says:

        Dear Fed Up. Are there any restrictions that should be imposed on homeless camps that would satisfy you? Should we place the homeless camps right on elementary playgrounds? Would that work for you. Why do you think there is a law that does not allow children under 18 to stay in the camps? Do you think it might be for safety reasons? Hmmmm, just think about it…….

        • Fed up says:

          There you go again, assuming that those in need are going to be a danger to children. Statistically speaking, you should be more worried about people in your family or your neighbors harming your children.

          • SaveDesMoines says:

            There you go again, not answering a question. So, I’ll ask again. Are there any restrictions that will satisfy you or should we just put the camps on the playgrounds?

          • BirchCreek says:

            SaveDesMoines, You’re right, as you’ve commented, no one seems to want to answer intelligently asked questions. They seem to just want to belly-ache.

        • robert rachels says:

          You are sooo “stupid” and I am being kind…
          Signed A Union worker who is homeless, by choice, and is not a threat to any one or any child no matter where I chose to “camp”.
          Once I’ve saved $50,000 (for the down payment on my own home) I will still fight for homeless rights.. not all homeless persons or “Addict’s or Criminals”.
          I choose to live in my car so that I could save the rent money that I would be paying otherwise anyway so as to purchase my own home..
          Go figure? You are VERY closed minded/brainwashed….

      • Des Moines Homeowner says:

        FED UP: Name on positive attribute having the homeless near schools will bring to our community? Name one positive having a facility that attracts the addicted and mentally ill to our neighborhood? This facility will bring MORE of these issues to Des Moines. Get ready for the decline of our property values and the criminal element these people bring with them. If you think having the homeless and a facility for King County addicts and the mentally ill community is a good idea and safe for children, maybe it is you who should invite and pay for them to live in your home. Have at it. I’m not , nor are my neighbors interested in entertaining them in or around our community. NOTHING good will come from having these people in our neighborhoods or around our schools. NOTHING.

        • Wanker says:

          I saw a stat recently from a presentation on homelessness in Seattle. It stated that for every $100 the average rent goes up, homelessness rose by 15%. That is pretty alarming considering what the tech industry is doing to the entire region. There are good, hard working people, that just cannot afford to live in this area, that need our help.

          From my understanding, most of these camps have strict rules that a member has to live by in order to be part of their camps. They are organized and well run. The homeless people that we need to be worried about are the ones that refuse to live by any rules, and are already setting up unofficial homeless encampments in the woods around us, breaking into homes and cars to feed their addictions.

          It is also my understanding that the city was required by Washington state law to have a policy around encampments, and that is what this ordinance was created for. Personally, I am indifferent regarding 500 or 1000 feet, as the true risks to our community don’t follow rules and ordinances.

        • robert rachels says:

          You suck!
          Let me remind you that NOT ALL homeless people are mentally ill and or drug addicted..pull your head out of the ground (you know what) and get a life…

    • Fed up says:

      SaveDesMoines: your question was too ridiculous to answer. I live in reality. On a playground? Come on, that’s not even an option nor will it ever be. It’s people like you who spread unnecessary fear. I am not scared of those who need help, so I look at things a little different I guess.

      • SaveDesMoines says:

        Fed Up, what are you talking about? Spreading fear? For wanting some boundary’s? I asked you if there are any restrictions that would satisfy you? And if you have restrictions then what makes you any different than me? 500 feet is ok, but asking for 1,000 feet makes you a hater? What are your restrictions, because you must have some since you said a playground is out of the question. If you can’t answer the question just say that you don’t have an answer and you are only here to hate on people that are trying to set some restrictions…..

        • SaveDesMoines says:

          Guess you can’t answer the question, can you Fed Up? Where does your “reality” set restrictions, and why there? Seems like a pretty simple question….

          • Wanker says:

            SaveDesMoines, Question for you… Where do you think homeless people go when not in camps? Do you think they just go *poof* and vanish into thin air? Or do you not care as long as they’re not in your back yard?

        • SaveDesMoines says:

          Ok Wanker, I’m going to try and have a conversation with you once more. I haven’t heard of a single person person saying, “No” to homeless camps. All people are trying to do is set up some parameters. What is wrong with a 1,000 feet from an elementary school? Isn’t that what they set aside as a drug free zone? I have asked a certain person on here what they think is a reasonable distance and have yet to get an answer. Should it be 10 feet? A mile? I think the city council did a very good job in supporting a thousand foot distance. I seriously don’t understand the wrath on this one because I haven’t heard a single thought out explanation why it should be less, only complaints…..

          • Wanker says:

            So, are you implying that all homeless people are drug addicts, or as dangerous as drugs, hence the 1000 foot barrier?

            What do you propose we do about the homeless people who don’t live in camps, don’t follow rules, and are squatting in vacant houses or in the woods by any of our schools?

          • SaveDesMoines says:

            I see there is no chance of having a reasonable conversation with you again, so after this I’m out. In no way did I,”imply that all homeless are drug addicts” and I know that you know that isn’t what I meant. There are, and should be restrictions around elementary schools and I was using the drug free zone as an example. I gave you my points and asked for yours and you, like all the other naysayers, won’t give an answer. What restrictions should there be, or should there be any at all. Quit complaining and offer your own damn solution, or maybe it’s just easier to sit back and complain about others that are trying to do something and putting their actions where their mouths are…. I’m done with you once and for all….

          • Wanker says:

            SaveDesMoines I am not complaining, I am simply trying to have a polite conversation, and understand your viewpoint. My question was a reasonable one regarding the 1000 foot barrier.

            The point I am making is that restricting the distance of homeless camps from schools does not take into account that there are already unofficial homeless camps within 1000 feet of schools. I know the city does their best to clean them up, but they will pop up from time to time. What good is it to restrict official homeless camps to 1000 feet when there are more problematic camps closer?

            Also, do you have any information that shows that organized, church run homeless camps create crime or undesirable situations? I know WResident shared a link, but that seems to only take into account the camps that are not authorized or organized, which I agree are problems.

            You accuse others of not answering questions, but when people ask you questions about your viewpoint, it becomes “unreasonable to have a conversation”. It’s okay if we disagree, I am not trying to be rude, just trying to have a conversation like adults.

          • SaveDesMoines says:

            Alright Wanker, I’ll try this one more time, but please don’t put words in my mouth. I have not seen any studies, and I did not see the link you referred to, that say anything at all about homeless camps. Whether or not they are good or bad, I don’t know and you will notice that I have not referred to such at any point. My point is that elementary schools should be free of so many adult problems and situations. Guns, drugs, drug addicts, alcoholics, and yes people that are down on their luck whether it be self imposed or not. It’s the same reason I don’t let my kids watch the news, just because people get murdered doesn’t mean I have to let them see it. They have plenty of time to learn about the harshness of life. Is a 1,000 feet some kind of magic barrier? No, it’s not. Should there be be some restrictions as far as placement of such projects, I believe so and that is why I do support the vote the council made. Until somebody at all gives me a good reason why the distance should be different I will support our council.
            As for the non-official camps, well of course something needs to be done about them as well, but that’s kind of a different matter at this point. Unless of course somebody here wants to get started on that project, we can only do one thing at a time.
            Now I must ask, why are people so against the council voting to keep camps 1,000 feet away from elementary schools?

          • Wanker says:

            Thank you SaveDesMoines, I am having an increasingly hard time with the news lately, and if my child wanted to watch it, I don’t think I would let them. I can understand wanting to limit a child’s exposure to adult situations, but I also feel that there are great lessons of compassion that can be taught kids as well in a situation like this.

            Generally an organized homeless camp is a step above the others, with rules against drugs and alcohol, violence, sex offender status etc. This is why I am less concerned with these camps, than others.

          • SaveDesMoines says:

            Wanker, crazy!! I agree with what you just said….:) I agree, as do most, that there is a need for the camps. With that being said they can’t be right on top of an elementary. 1,000 feet is not that much. I’m just guessing here but I’m going to say it’s about 2 blocks. Doesn’t seem like too much to ask for….

          • SaveDesMoines says:

            Before somebody jumps all over my butt I’m going to say it, I was just thinking about it and I bet you 1,000 feet is more like 3 blocks….

        • Wanker says:

          I feel like you and I really have the same motives, just different priorities, and opinions on how to deal with it. Wow, did an Internet fight just end amicably? Must be a full moon!

  2. Tatti Boudreaux says:

    I wish this would include the community college in Des Moines.

  3. WResident says:

    Here is an informative article on the topic of homeless encampments including the issues of crime surrounding them.

  4. Dr. Alexander Szabo says:

    I want to personally thank those of my Des Moines neighbors who voted for me in the election for the Des Moines City Council, Position no.2. I will continue my work on the Des Moines Human Services Advisory Committee and work hard to mentor my agency responsibilities so as to provide our vulnerable and oppressed citizens the necessary services that they need and which our funding makes available to us.

  5. BirchCreek says:

    I worked for 5 years with Street kids on Capitol Hill. The homeless don’t need encampents, they need jobs and community support. BUT they also need to buy into the process that will get them off the streets. Not all make it. What did the Feds do during the depression? WPA sound familiar? Put people to work. And those that dont?… Well they unfortunately will have to hit rock bottom, in the mud and disgusintg mire before they have had enough and want to change. That is my personal experience – 2 cents worth.

    • Wanker says:

      BirchCreek, Whether or not homeless encampments are allowed or not, is not the issue. The state mandates that cities have to have an ordinance regarding them on the books for when an organization wants to set up a camp. This was simply the city doing it’s due diligence and getting an ordinance on the books. There was debate over the distance from schools.

      I think one of the biggest misconceptions here, is that all homeless people are the same. You state that you worked with homeless kids on Capitol Hill. I would be willing to bet they different motivations, and needs than other homeless people. Not all homeless people are unemployed, addicted, etc.

      • Alias Removed says:

        Just curious, Wanker. As an advocate for the homeless what are you currently doing on their behalf?

        • Wanker says:

          First, I am surprised the blog moderator allowed your comments with such a vulgar name.

          Second, where did you get the idea I was an advocate for the homeless?

          • Greg Wright says:

            Thanks for the note on the alias on this comment. That got by me, but I got that edited. (For the record, though — “Wanker” isn’t exactly family-friendly either and is considered pejorative vulgar slang. You might consider an alternate alias yourself!)

          • Rhymes with Tanker says:

            Thank you Greg, wanker is vulgar in the original literal sense, however the common usage is similar to “jerk”, which is my intention.

          • Greg Wright says:

            Yeah, I’ve been around for 50 years or so. I was just jerking your chain.

  6. Mulisha Mushterd says:

    Would City Manager Tony Piasecki be as “open-mindedly elated” as he was at a recent council meeting when he declared how Syrian “refugees” would be happily relocated to DM, if he knew they would end up in these homeless encampments?

  7. Charles Wilkes says:

    Because Being homeless=criminal………sickening

  8. BirchCreek says:

    Charles, no one has said “homeless=criminal”.
    Homelessness is a complex issue.
    I worked with the homeless for five years. Some are there by no fault of thier own. Others have chosen a life style that lead them to end up on the streets. Some resort to crime to pay for their habits. Others are mentally ill (violent, angry…).
    The issue is proximity to schools. Why is limiting that a problem?
    Personally, I believe that encampments are not the solution – as evidenced today my the rain and wind storm. They need housing, required social services and required compliance to social service directives. But this costs. It requires a huge investment of money, political will, personal accountability and consequences.

    “Rescue the perishing,
    don’t hesitate to step in and help.
    If you say ‘Hey, that’s none of my business,’
    will that get you off the hook?
    Someone is watching you closely, you know –
    Someone not impressed with weak excuses.”
    From “The Thirty Precepts of the Sages”

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