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Homeless concerns brought to city commission

MARQUETTE — A half-dozen local residents spoke during a public comment period at the Marquette City Commission meeting Monday night.

Chelsie Wilkinson, executive director of Room at the Inn, a local shelter, kicked off the remarks. She mentioned that at the end of June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment does not prohibit cities from punishing unhoused people for sleeping in public, even if they have nowhere else to go.

“When you have no other place to stay — you can’t stay at a shelter, no one you might know locally will take you in, or you don’t even have a car to sleep in — what is a person supposed to do? Many homeless people don’t have any other option,” Shefali Aurora, American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa staff attorney said in a press release.

The ruling was issued in the case Grants Pass v. Johnson, which originated from an Oregon city that passed ordinances prohibiting people from sleeping outside in public using a blanket, pillow, or even a cardboard sheet to lie on. In Grants Pass, Oregon, unhoused people could be hit with hundreds of dollars in fines, and even jailed for sleeping outside, even when the city lacked enough shelter beds.

“Alger and Marquette counties have about 100 homeless people, including 40 families with children,” Wilkinson said, after passing out information sheets to the commissioners. “Janzen House is full. Harbor House is full. Room at the Inn currently has 15 people on our waiting list. Superior Connections closed a month ago.”

Wilkinson said she and others were asking the commission to not criminalize people for being homeless.

“We ask that you repeal or not enforce any ordinances that could make living in public a crime. Our goal at the shelters is to get these people into permanent housing,” she said.

Wilkinson and five other local residents asked that the commission make it clear that unhoused people will not be harassed by police or private security in Marquette.

“We ask for the right for the homeless to move freely in public spaces, with no unreasonable searches or seizure in homeless camps. For no penalties for soliciting, offering or accepting food or money. We ask that homeless people not be harassed for moving, resting, sleeping, sitting, lying down, or protecting oneself from the elements,” a statement read.

“We need to find solutions other than criminalizing homelessness. I don’t think anyone on this board wants to arrest anyone for not being able to find shelter,” Commissioner Cody Mayer said.

Mayor Sally Davis suggested that the residents who brought their concerns about treatment of unhoused people draft a resolution and give it to city staff. Staff can work on the specifics and bring it to the commission, which would give the city a good place to start addressing these concerns.

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