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Monday, July 15, 2024

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Ordinance Targeting Rio Encampments May End Up in Court

sockagphoto/Shutterstock.com
Shown is a stock image of a tent in the woods.

By Vince Conti

COURT HOUSE – At the July 17 Middle Township Committee meeting, James Chew, a self-described advocate for the homeless in Rio Grande, said police action against the homeless encampments in Rio Grande may be imminent.

The township recently adopted an ordinance banning the use of temporary structures as living quarters. One avowed target of the ordinance is the removal of tent encampments in the Rio Grande woods.

Chew and others have used township meetings to argue against rousting the homeless out of tent communities where some have lived for months and even years.

“They have nowhere else to go,” Chew said repeatedly.

Mayor Timothy Donohue did not respond to Chew’s comments at the meeting, but he has done so at earlier meetings of the governing body. Donohue has argued that the tent encampments are a violation of health and safety laws, contribute to crime and drug use in the area, and are the subject of numerous complaints from residents and business owners.

Rio Grande is an important retail hub for the township and the home of many state and local social service offices. The area is also a focal point for the homeless problem in the county.

Police statistics show that Rio Grande is burdened by the township’s highest rates of petty crime and illicit drug use. The police department’s annual report covering 2022 shows an increase in offenses in this section of the township.

Donohue has pointed to the establishment of a Rio Grande partnership under the leadership of governing body member James Norris. The partnership, with a mix of residents, business owners, and municipal officials, is intended to bring community stakeholders together to seek options that can improve the quality of life in the area.

Chew singled out Norris and the partnership, saying it has done little to help the homeless. Norris, like Donohue, elected not to reply.

Chew said individuals in one of the homeless encampments have been notified by police that they must vacate the property or face summons as early as July 24.

In one case, Chew asserted that the owner of the private property used by one encampment has also received notice that he will be facing penalties for allowing the temporary shelters on his property.

Chew repeatedly charged the township with harassment, claiming that he, the property owner, and the homeless are being unnecessarily harassed by township officials.

“I served 21 years in the Air Force protecting the rights we used to have,” Chew said.

The tent encampments throughout the wooded areas of Rio Grande are on both private and public land. Chew argues that federal and state laws and court decisions state that the municipality cannot criminalize the homeless encampments if there is no other option.

Chew cited a 2018 federal court case, Martin v. Boise, in which the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said the homeless cannot be punished for sleeping outside on public land if there are no adequate alternatives available. Cape May County has no official homeless shelter.

The scope of the homeless problem in the township lacks specific statistics because the January Point-in-Time survey of the homeless has not yet been made publicly available. Six months after the count was completed, the report has not been issued.

According to Monarch Housing Associates, the organization that coordinates the New Jersey survey, the state has yet to approve the report, which cannot be issued without that approval. The annual count of the homeless is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

With a handful of the Rio Grande homeless now represented by an attorney, the township’s ordinance, and any action taken to enforce it, could end up in the courts.

Contact the author, Vince Conti, at vconti@cmcherald.com.

Reporter

Vince Conti is a reporter for the Cape May County Herald.

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