protesters gather at city hall 20

Protesters wait outside City Hall until the meeting began.

It’s 6 p.m. in downtown Harrisonburg. Any other day, the court square is a picturesque example of a sleepy town center. Today, however, its central gazebo is abuzz with the sounds of peaceful protest. Starting at the gazebo, Harrisonburg citizens exercised their First Amendment right to peaceful assembly and walked from the county square to City Hall with signs and heads held high.

At the March 26 city council meeting, the City of Harrisonburg announced its intent to enact Section 16-6-1, which would restrict pedestrian presence at seven designated intersections within the city of Harrisonburg, including the intersection of South Main Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way. The proposed ordinance is intended to increase public traffic safety by removing driver distractions, increasing the flow of traffic and reducing the amount of pedestrian-vehicle collisions.

On April 9, a group of approximately twenty Harrisonburg City residents gathered at the court square gazebo next to the historic Rockingham County courthouse to protest the proposed enactment of Sec. 16-6-1. The group came prepared with signs, flyers, a plan and a message to share. In the eyes of the City of Harrisonburg, the proposed ordinance will positively affect the community and carry minimal negative repercussions. To those gathered in protest, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

The citizens who participated in the protest hold that the City of Harrisonburg is using the guise of increasing public safety to pass legislation that will discriminate against the homeless community in Harrisonburg.

Michael Snell-Feikema, a vocal advocate for Harrisonburg’s homeless community, said the city officials packaged anti-panhandling legislation as a public safety measure to get the ordinance through the court system. He argues that the implementation of Sec. 16-6-1 would — by criminalizing extended citizen presence at the seven named intersections — prohibit the practice of panhandling in certain locations, in turn hindering homeless community members’ ability to attempt to dig themselves out of poverty and homelessness.

“[The City of Harrisonburg is] … going ‘Well, we can do this, this or this,’” Snell-Feikema said. “And then getting a negative reaction from the community about criminalizing it … they went, ‘Oh, the way we gotta package this is as a public safety issue. That also happens to be the way to try to get it past the courts.’”

While protesters view the proposed ordinance as an excuse to eliminate opportunity for the homeless community, it’s not the only problem with the proposed legislation. Those against the ordinance also view Sec. 16-6-1 as an infringement upon homeless people’s rights. By criminalizing panhandling, protesters say, the City of Harrisonburg will be removing the homeless community’s First Amendment right of free speech by dictating where homeless people can and can’t ask for help.

Among those supporting this stance is Eric Olson-Getty, a worker at the Our Community Place shelter and assistance center. Through Our Community Place, Olson-Getty works directly with the homeless community and has seen some of the problems facing the community first-hand.

“It’s kind of a cultural problem,” Olson-Getty said. “People can be offended by the sight of someone asking for help, and so this ordinance is sort of a, kind of, sneaky way to act out that hostility.”

The City of Harrisonburg disagrees with these claims and says that Sec. 16-6-1 doesn’t infringe on the rights of the homeless and won’t have a negative effect on the community. The proposed legislation states “... the City Council desires to protect the health, safety and welfare of its citizens by restricting points of conflict between pedestrians and and motor vehicles in the manner least restrictive to the First Amendment rights of the public.”

City of Harrisonburg Police Chief Eric English has personal experience with similar ordinances and says that Sec. 16-6-1 will only benefit the city without having any adverse effect on Harrisonburg’s homeless community.

“Everybody has a right to protest what their belief is and what they feel is right,” English said. “Where I came from, Richmond, we had a similar ordinance to the one being proposed … If [the protester’s] feeling is that [Sec. 16-6-1] drives people, drives the homeless, away, it doesn’t … It doesn’t prevent people from asking for money. It just prevents you from the spot where you can ask for money.”

The citizens advocating against Sec. 16-6-1 were prepared with several alternative measures the city could take to begin to remedy the problem without infringing on the homeless community’s right to free speech. A predominant idea the protesters hold is that housing-first options are almost always a better alternative to new legislation, and most of their proposed solutions were in line with that.

“Hopefully, [we can] also open the door for more long-term solutions to homelessness,” Olson-Getty said, “because we have … a lack of resources like affordable housing and mental health care. One thing I would really love to see is a low-barrier shelter year-round because, during the winter, people have open doors to go to, but then that closes. And then, as of this week, people are out on the streets.”

Participants in the protest are also pushing for other concrete solutions alongside increased housing availability. A member of the homeless community who would only be identified by the pseudonym “Chops” named a lack of availability of 24/7 bathrooms as a large-scale problem facing the homeless community that could be quickly amended by the City of Harrisonburg, saying, “Where you gonna go pee at 3 o’clock in the morning without getting a $170.00 ticket?”

It’s things like these that pushed a group of citizens to practice their rights of assembly and free speech and advocate for a community that faces difficulty in speaking up for itself. In the coming weeks, the Sec. 16-6-1 enactment proposal will most likely face a public hearing at the recommendation of the city attorney and his staff. As the debate approaches its conclusion, those standing in protest of the ordinance want to emphasize that this a human issue that will have a direct impact on the homeless community of the City of Harrisonburg.

“We can … look at the cities that have taken more constructive approaches … and imitate them, not the cities that are trying to sweep it under the rug and make it invisible because it’s disturbing,” Snell-Feikema said. “It should be disturbing. It’s disturbing that we live in a society where people don’t have homes.”

Contact Jake Conley at breezecopy@gmail.com. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.