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Wausau’s proposed loitering ordinance draws national criticism

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Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Assistant City Attorney Tara Alfonso was the author of the proposed ordinance, and attributes written statements in public documents to Alfonso. The original story attributed the comments and ordinance to City Attorney Anne Jacobson. Documents in the city’s online packet refer only to the “Office of the City Attorney” and do not specify authorship. Wausau Pilot and Review regrets the error.

By Shereen Siewert

The legal director for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty is calling on city officials to reject a proposal that would make it illegal to loiter in Wausau parking ramps, raising concerns that the ordinance may spur litigation.

Assistant City Attorney Tara Alfonso, in public documents, was sharply critical of a Nov. 1 Wausau Pilot and Review story that raised questions over the legality of the ordinance, quoting an ACLU attorney and a spokesman for the Wisconsin Coalition Against Homelessness. Alfonso argued that the case law in the Pilot story did not apply to Wausau’s proposal. But in a letter sent to City Attorney Anne Jacobson, Mayor Rob Mielke, and all members of the Wausau City Council, the Law Center’s Legal Director Eric Tars suggests that the proposal may indeed spur litigation, which would be an additional expense to the city.

“Similar ordinances in other municipalities nationwide have prompted lawsuits,” Tars wrote. “Based on our observations, 57% of lawsuits brought against municipalities for anti-sleeping or anti-camping ordinances between 2014 and 2017 resulted in decisions favorable to the homeless plaintiffs.”

Tars also pointed to the Department of Justice statement, also referred to in the Wausau Pilot and Review report, that says that criminalizing public sleeping in cities with insufficient housing and support for homeless individuals “does not improve public safety outcomes or reduce the factors that contribute to homelessness… Issuing citations for public sleeping forces individuals into the criminal justice system and creates additional obstacles to overcoming homelessness…Finally, pursuing charges against individuals for sleeping in public imposes further burdens on scarce public defender, judicial, and carceral resources. Thus, criminalizing homelessness is both unconstitutional and misguided public policy, leading to worse outcomes for people who are homeless and for their communities.”

According to Tars, proven solutions to homelessness do exist, but the best, most cost-effective, and permanent way to achieve that is to ensure that all who are unsheltered are able to access adequate, alternative housing, an issue the proposal fails to address The lack of plan or requirement to house or adequately shelter the displaced persons means they are merely dispersed to different public spaces.

“Thus, we are concerned that the Proposed Ordinance merely provides procedures and cover for pursuing ineffective and expensive punishment strategies, rather than constructive solutions that can actually end homelessness in the city,” Tars wrote.

While the cost of the proposed ordinance can be easily overlooked, Tars’ letter states, each person fined under the ordinance will burden the city’s law enforcement system. Numerous studies have shown that communities actually save money by providing housing and services to those in need, rather than saddling them with fines, fees and arrest records and cycling them through the expensive jail system.

In a Nov. 12 email, Tars said the Wausau Pilot and Review story flagged the organization’s attention and prompted the response. The center is offering to assist the city with alternatives that address the root of homelessness, drawing on the center’s best practices and procedures.

“The Law Center urges you to vote “no” on the Proposed Ordinance,” Tars’ letters states. “If you are truly concerned about the presence of homeless in parking lots and ramps, the best way to address the problem is by removing the need for people to shelter themselves in public in the first place, by providing adequate housing and services. Our reports document numerous case studies of constructive alternatives.”

See the full letter on the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s website here.

The issue will be discussed at a 6 p.m. meeting Tuesday of the City Council in Council Chambers at City Hall, 407 Grant St., Wausau.

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