Jackson police officers now have the tools needed to address vagrancy on the Northside.
In April, the city council approved an ordinance regulating urban camping and the improper use of public places in the city.
The ordinance was passed at the behest of the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT), which had asked the city for help in addressing vagrancy under its interstate overpasses.
Camping has been particularly problematic on the Northside, with vagrants setting up encampments under the overpasses at Northside Drive, Canton Mart Road and Adkins Boulevard.
City Attorney Tim Howard said without the ordinance, MDOT would likely have to take other steps to prevent individuals using the underpasses, including installing fencing.
“They would have to erect fencing with razors and that would be quite unsightly,” Howard said.
The ordinance was approved on a 5-1 vote. Ward Four Councilman De’Keither Stamps was opposed.
Last week, minutes from the meeting were awaiting the mayor’s signature.
“Upon approval of minutes, the city of Jackson and MDOT (will) clean the areas and inform the homeless constituents of the new ordinance and policy,” said Keyshia Sanders, director of constituent services for the city.
Sanders didn’t say when the minutes would be signed.
The ordinance was passed weeks after MDOT told the Sun that it would be erecting signs at the underpasses at Canton Mart Road and Adkins Boulevard as a first step in addressing the growing homeless problem.
In February, the Sun reported that the underpasses had become gathering spots for the homeless, who bring in shopping carts, chairs, sleeping bags and other effects to camp out.
The same underpasses are also hubs for panhandlers, who are typically seen standing at the intersections asking drivers for money.
Since that story ran, another camp had set up at the Northside Drive underpass.
Under the ordinance, those camps will be prohibited.
“Number one, you can’t camp. You can use street, sidewalk or right of way under a bridge for living accommodations - sleeping, preparing to sleep, laying down a bed, storing personal belongings, making a fire, cooking or setting up a tent,” Howard said.
“Secondly, you cannot store personal property … According to the ordinance, that means to leave one’s personal effects unattended. You can’t do it on public property, you can’t do it under a bridge and you can’t do it in a city park.”
Finally, the ordinance prohibits individuals to interfere with ingress and egress areas.
Under the measure, individuals are first given an oral or written warning from the police department. Those who are caught violating the rules a second time can be arrested.
Further, personal property, such as shopping carts and sleeping bags, can be confiscated by the police. Rules state that those items can be taken by the department without warning and retained “in a manner consistent with the handling of other confiscated property.”
Violations of the statute would be considered misdemeanors.
Cities Across the state have been grappling with the homeless problem for years.
The Jackson Police Department (JPD) could do little to curb panhandling and gathering, after state lawmakers did away with state statutes governing the activities.
In 2018, the Mississippi Legislature repealed Mississippi Code Sections 95-35-29 through 99-29-13, the state’s vagrancy laws.
The bill was authored by Reps. Dana Criswell of DeSoto County, Abe Hudson of Bolivar and Sunflower counties and Kabir Karriem of Lowndes County.
“If a person was idle or had no visible means of support, they could be declared a vagrant and at that point lose all their rights,” Criswell said. “The police could declare that person a vagrant and arrest them.
“If you’re not breaking a law, not harming anybody, not taking property, and the officer says you have (no visible means of) support (and can arrest you), to me that’s a problem.”
Criswell said that striking the state law would not prohibit municipalities from crafting their own rules.
The passage of that measure, though, tied the hands of law enforcement officers, who had to wait for their cities to craft vagrancy ordinances.
JPD Chief James Davis, who had not had a chance to read the ordinance, voiced his frustration with the problem earlier this year: “We can’t tell them not to bring stuff there and we can’t tell them not to ask for money.”
Meanwhile, Davis said shoplifting along the I-55 commercial corridor had spiked, something he credited to the increase in the area’s homeless population.
Between March 1 and April 13, 41 cases of shoplifting were reported in Precinct Four, the majority of which were at businesses along I-55. The number represents a 120 percent increase over the same time last year.
“The homeless walk into a business and walk out with merchandise,” he said. “That has increased.”