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Decatur criminalizes homelessness by closing downtown parks at night and fining violators

Rather than add cameras and increase security to catch criminals in its public parks and make our public spaces accessible and safer for all, the Decatur City Council voted to criminalize homelessness by closing Central Park and Preston Jackson Park from midnight – 6 AM and can fine anyone who sets foot in public parks after hours.  

This new law criminalizes homelessness in Decatur.  As per a 2021 statement published by the National Alliance to End Homelessness: “The criminalization of homelessness refers to policies, laws, and local ordinances that make it illegal, difficult, or impossible for unsheltered people to engage in the normal everyday activities that most people carry out on a daily basis, or in activities that help make them safer. … In short, these policies may penalize homelessness, but they do nothing to reduce it.”

As per the ordinance, it shall be unlawful for any person to walk, stand, or otherwise be present in or upon Central Park or Preston Jackson Park between the hours of midnight and 6 AM. People who are convicted of being present in their downtown parks will be subject to a $25 fine.  If you are homeless, helping the homeless, a dog walker, art lover, birdwatcher, third-shift worker going home, or a tourist, you could be fined.  Ironically, the most recent issue of a travel magazine, AAA Living, features a picture of the Decatur Transfer House at night, a place that is now illegal to visit during certain hours. 

The closure of the downtown parks was opposed by the Macon County Continuum of Care, a coalition of service providers and community stakeholders who serve people experiencing homelessness in Decatur.  As stated in their letter to the city council prior to the meeting, “We feel strongly that this proposed ordinance will disproportionately impact the individuals we serve who are experiencing homelessness in our community.  It will create additional barriers to securing permanent housing … and an erosion of trust between those who need help and those who should be helping them.”

To be clear, the city did not take any new steps to catch criminals that perpetrate the crimes taking place in our parks.  Instead, the new law levies fines against law-abiding citizens who want to use their parks respectfully and peacefully.  Vandalism is already a crime and if vandalism is a problem, install cameras to identify the perpetrators and arrest them.  Public defecation is already a crime and if defecation is a problem, why not unlock the Transfer House at night so people can use the restroom?  Why not build a public restroom that is open 24 hours a day?  This way tourists and residents alike have a restroom they can use while visiting downtown. 

A city of Decatur press release dated December 5 states “The City is committed to reducing the amount of damage in the parks late at night, as well as assisting individuals who attempt to stay overnight in the downtown parks.”  In fact, this ordinance does neither of these things.  This ordinance does not help police catch those committing criminal activity and fining homeless people is not helping them.  

As Christmas approaches and in the midst of the season of giving, the only thing 4 of 7 city council members are giving those experiencing homelessness is a fine.  Decatur has always been known as a caring and compassionate community with no limits to its kindness.  With the passage of this law that is no longer the case.   Instead of solutions, some on the city council chose fines.  Instead of compassion, some on the city council chose criminalization. 

Horn for Decatur
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