MOUNT VERNON — The Mount Vernon City Council put off a vote Wednesday on a plan to allow safe overnight parking for the homeless at churches in the city.
The decision to delay the vote came during after an usually crowded council meeting in which 14 people spoke on the proposed emergency ordinance — six in favor and eight opposed.
If approved, the ordinance would allow religious organizations to let up to 12 people in five cars park on their premises nightly from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m.
Because it is an emergency ordinance, it would be effective immediately once passed.
The council would be required to hold a public hearing within 60 days, and the details can be tweaked before a permanent ordinance is put into place, which is required within six months of passage of the emergency ordinance.
The council will reconvene Sept. 11 for another discussion of the ordinance.
Mount Vernon resident Loretta Oakes said she believes there are plenty of programs in the county to support the homeless, and if they really wanted help they could get it.
“I don’t believe there should be any provision at all for vagrants,” she said.
Oakes said she believes a program such as this would be a magnet for homeless people, inflating the number and size of encampments in the city.
“It will grow, and then it will be so hard to get rid of them,” she said.
Curtis Steingauer, who was once homeless in Mount Vernon, said the idea that the city’s homeless population is coming from elsewhere is untrue.
“The vast majority of these people are local citizens,” he said. “They have nowhere to go. What this ordinance will provide is, hopefully, a safe place to be.”
When he was homeless, he said there wasn’t enough money or services to go around, meaning he often didn’t get help.
Keith Johnson, who heads up of the homeless-led activist group Welcome Home Community, said he doesn’t want to turn Mount Vernon into a place with large, visible homeless encampments.
Because the homeless population is under constant scrutiny, Johnson said he’s been an advocate for giving back to the community. For several years, he’s led a group of homeless in an effort to pick up trash throughout the city.
“We’re in a goldfish bowl wherever we go,” he said. “We have to be good citizens.”
Having a safe place to sleep at night promotes stability, which he said will reduce crime and drug abuse.
Cheryl Pratt, who lives near a winter homeless shelter at the Mount Vernon Seventh-Day Adventist Church, said she is worried about what a homeless encampment would do to property values.
While she said the shelter was well run in 2018 — its first year — she started noticing problems in 2019.
She said she was woken by loud cars arriving after the shelter closed, and found feces and needles around the premises.
Pratt was one of many speakers Wednesday who called on the city to create a centralized place for safe parking, rather than dispersing the population among several churches.
“I live in a nice little neighborhood, and I have a lot of sympathy for the homeless,” Pratt said. “But I don’t think putting them in neighborhoods is the answer.”
No churches have yet committed to running a safe parking program.
After public comment, the council took a moment to deliberate.
Councilman Mark Hulst, who eventually made the motion to table a vote, asked city staff to research the legality of changing the ordinance to restrict a safe parking site from being within 1,000 feet of another safe parking site.
He also requested churches not be allowed to operate a safe parking site and an indoor homeless shelter in the same year.
Those two provisions, he said, would hopefully spread out any impacts.
Council members Mary Hudson and Richard Brocksmith requested staff research whether safe parking sites could admit accompanied minors or children who are legally emancipated.
As written, the ordinance does not allow those under 18 onto safe parking sites.