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City votes down tent-dwelling amendment

An ordinance amendment designed to eliminate tent-dwellers in residential areas was voted down on its second reading Tuesday.

The amendment was drafted in response to complaints from residents in the city, Winchester Mayor Ed Burtner said.

Those who work with the homeless community, though, said the amendment could hamper their efforts to find the homeless better housing.

“We recognize the intent of the ordinance was not to do harm,” Clark County Community Services Director Debbie Fatkin said. “If passed, people in tents will have no place to go.”

Under the current COVID-19 guidelines, emergency shelters are operating at 50 percent capacity, she said, and the lack of evictions means permanent housing is hard to find.

Fatkin said they are in the process of securing permanent housing for those living in tents, but it won’t be resolved quickly.

“We are in the process of housing them,” Fatkin said. “It’s not an easy process. It’s not fast.”

Commissioner Shannon Cox, though, said a couple residents in his neighborhood are genuinely scared, including an 84-year-old woman who is afraid to leave her home and a mother considering quitting her job rather than leaving her teenage daughters home alone.

He said he knew of four encampments within a half-mile of his work.

“I’ve been asking for seven weeks,” he said. “What do I tell my neighbors? No one has a word.”

“Tell them I am working on it,” Fatkin said.

The ordinance, though, was voted down 3-2, with Cox and Burtner voting in favor of the amendment.

Thomas Hall, pastor of Church of the Living God, said his congregation has had problems with people living in a field near the church harassing the congregation after services.

“We’re getting cursed and they are coming and going,” Hall said. “I feel we have a difficult situation.”

Winchester Police Chief Kevin Palmer said being homeless and living in a tent are not crimes. The ordinance amendment would have placed the burden on the property owner to enforce, rather than the police.

Burtner said the city has been trying to enforce its liens and foreclose on the property, but the ongoing pandemic has slowed civil matters in the court system.

“It’s not a crime to be homeless,” Palmer said. “There’s no quick fix. I have full confidence in Debbie (that) this is being resolved quickly.”

“We want our residents to feel safe … and we want to help everyone have a roof over their head,” Commissioner Ramsey Flynn said.

There was discussion about forming a task force within the community to take further action and discussion, but none was instituted Tuesday.

Burtner said the amended ordinance would have given the city another tool.

“Government can do a lot of things but it can’t command people to build houses,” he said.

“Or tell them what to charge for rent,” Cox said.

“Beyond that, I don’t know what we can do,” Burtner said.

In other action, the commissioners:

— approved the second reading of an ordinance setting the motor vehicle property tax rate at 19.5 cents per $100 value.

— voted to release a utility easement for the George Rogers Clark High School gymnasium and fieldhouse.

— awarded a bid of $17,590 form Innovative Demolition to remove a house at 36 N. Burns Ave.

— awarded a bid to Craig Rogers for sealing and repairs on Church Alley of $6,707.58.

— approved a property maintenance agreement with William and Deatra Newell for property on Oliver Street.

— accepted the resignation of crossing guard Linda Patten.

— accepted the resignation of firefighter III/paramedic Kelly Smith.

— accepted the resignation of patient transfer specialist/EMT Laura McKune.

About Fred Petke

Fred Petke is a reporter for The Winchester Sun. His beats include cops, courts, fire, public records, city and county government and other news. To contact Fred, email fred.petke@winchestersun.com or call 859-759-0051.

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