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Roanoke City Council passes ordinance banning people from camping on downtown sidewalks

The change will go into effect January 1, 2022

During its Monday meeting, the Roanoke City Council passed an ordinance making it a crime to camp on sidewalks in downtown Roanoke.

ROANOKE, Va. – During its Monday meeting, the Roanoke City Council passed an ordinance making it a crime to camp on sidewalks in downtown Roanoke.

The measure, which is punishable as a Class 4 misdemeanor, passed 5-2. The penalty for that class of misdemeanor is a fine of up to $250.

The ordinance defines camping as follows: “the use of any city-owned street, sidewalk, alley, other public rights-of-way for living accommodation activities such as sleeping or lying down, and making preparations to sleep (including the laying down of bedding, sleeping bag, or other sleeping matter, for the purpose of sleeping) or storing personal belongings or making any fire or using any tent or shelter or other structure.”

The ordinance was introduced by Roanoke’s City Manager to address concerns brought up by business owners. Including Texas Tavern owner, Matt Bullington.

“I’ve witnessed every single day for the past couple of years what happens when you do have group, a group living across the street And God bless the poor people. I don’t know trying to malign them, but what happens when people don’t live in a house, and they do all the normal things that you do in your house?” Texas Tavern Owner Matt Bullington said.

But those who have previously experienced homelessness, like Joshua Hailey, said this will just make the problem worse.

“It is a disservice to paint homelessness with such a broad brush that our city leaders with the lie that a shelter environment is the answer for every homeless individual,” said Hailey.

The city claims there is enough housing for those experiencing homelessness, including at the Roanoke Rescue Mission.

In light of the homeless camping ban ordinance that was passed yesterday by the Roanoke City Council, we will continue to do what we have always done, serve those in need. We know that an organization best serves its people when it responds to comments and concerns from those affected. We are listening, and we know the face of homelessness is constantly changing. As homelessness changes, we will do our best to serve each and every individual who needs services in our city. Our staff is undergoing training to better understand some of the challenges our guests and potential guests are facing. We do this because we know our primary responsibility is to help people get off the street, get them the services they need, and to help them find long term, stable housing. To everyone who spoke last night, we thank you for your feedback. At the end of the day, our goal is a common one, saving the lives of those who are homeless, addicted, and in need of help in our community.

Rescue Mission of Roanoke's statement on the passing of this ordinance

Although many at the meeting raised concerns about its inclusivity.

“Our shelters are open, we’ve trained our staff on trauma-informed care, we just today had training for our team on LGBTQ issues and how to better welcome people from any kind of background,” Lee Clark with the Roanoke Rescue Mission said.

The newly-passed ordinance governs what’s defined as the Downtown Service District.

The map below of the Downtown Service District shows where within city limits this ordinance will be enforceable:

Downtown Service District of Roanoke (City of Roanoke)

Roanoke City Manager Bob Cowell said business owners and residents downtown raised a number of concerns for safety.

“It is incumbent upon all of us to try to do what we can for the homeless situation because it is an issue it is really tough for all of us,” Council Member Trish White-Boyd said.

Councilors agreed it would be best to also help business owners who have expressed concerns over a rise in people experiencing homelessness in recent months.

“I truly sympathize our citizens that are homeless that are homeless, but we I don’t think we need to compound the issue by having individuals camping on our sidewalks disrupting small business activities,” Council Member Robert Jeffrey Jr. said.

Below is the full text of the newly passed ordinance:

Sec. 24-12 - Camping on public sidewalks and rights-of-way within the Downtown Service District.

It shall be unlawful and a Class 4 misdemeanor for any person within the Downtown Service District to camp on any city-owned street, sidewalk, alley, other public rights-of-way.

To camp is defined as the use of any city-owned street, sidewalk, alley, other public rights-of-way for living accommodation activities such as sleeping or lying down, and making preparations to sleep (including the laying down of bedding, sleeping bag, or other sleeping matter, for the purpose of sleeping) or storing personal belongings or making any fire or using any tent or shelter or other structure.

The Downtown Service District means the same as defined in Section 32-102.2, Defined, Division 6, Downtown Service District, Article II, Real Estate Taxes Generally, Chapter 32, Taxation, of the Code of the City of Roanoke (1979), as amended.

This section does not apply to a person who is on city-owned street, sidewalk, alley, or other public rights-of-way if the person is:

  1. on such street, sidewalk, alley, or other public rights-of-way because of a medical emergency;
  2. participating in or viewing a parade, festival, permitted public event, performance, rally, demonstration, or other similar activity;
  3. sitting within a bus stop zone while waiting for public or private transportation;
  4. sleeping in a motor vehicle, or
  5. (5) operating or patronizing an establishment that conducts business and/or provides outdoor dining on a sidewalk or other public rights-of-way in accordance with Section 30-4.1, Sidewalks sales, Section 30-9.1, Outdoor dining, or Section 30-9.2, Street vending, of the Code of the City of Roanoke (1979), as amended.

It is an affirmative defense to prosecution for a violation this section for lying down if a person is lying down and is obstructing the right-of-way, but is lying down as the result of a physical manifestation of a disability, not limited to visual observation.


About the Authors:

Jeff Williamson arrived at WSLS 10 in March 2016.

Annie Schroeder joined the 10 News team as a reporter in June 2020 and is no stranger to Southwest Virginia.