South Carolina

Banning homeless from public places: How Myrtle Beach is using this ordinance

Homeless speak about how they are treated in Myrtle Beach

Homeless in Myrtle Beach speak about how they are treated in the community.
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Homeless in Myrtle Beach speak about how they are treated in the community.

A Myrtle Beach ordinance that permits temporarily banning people from public places is predominantly being used against the homeless population.

City personnel issued 266 notices of expulsion and exclusion between March 2017 and June 2019, according to records obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request, and a Sun News review found at least 198 of those notices were issued to homeless people.

The ordinance, enacted in 2014, permits “the appropriate city personnel to eject and exclude a person, who by their nuisance conduct or illegal conduct, should be barred from entering into specific public places or participating in facility uses for a determined time, where such violation is violent or disruptive of other city visitors, customers, city employees, the conduct of city operations and the peaceful and orderly use of the facility by others.”

The notices include the name of the offender, a description of their unauthorized behavior, the public area where they are now banned, the duration of that ban, and the name of the official issuing the notice.

The notices were primarily issued by police officers, and the most common reasons listed were sleeping, public intoxication and drinking in public. Offenders were most often banned from the boardwalk, large swaths of the beach and public parks, including Chapin Park.

Most of the bans were listed for 90 days, which is the maximum allowed under the ordinance for a first-time misdemeanor offense. Returning to the public place where an offender is banned can result in a misdemeanor charge and lengthened ejectment period.

Targeting homeless?

Joey Smoak, executive director of Eastern Carolina Homelessness Organization, said he hadn’t heard of the ordinance, but noted that it’s part of a long-standing issue of Myrtle Beach seemingly trying to push homelessness out of public view.

“The real crux of the problem is there is nowhere else for (homeless to go),” he said. “If you don’t want them (in these public places), you have to provide an alternative.”

The organization’s latest count estimates more than 1,000 homeless people in the Myrtle Beach area, and the local shelters are consistently full.

Myrtle Beach Assistant Police Chief Marty Brown said placing homeless people under arrest is the last thing they want to do.

“We won’t arrest our way out of homelessness; … it puts them a step back,” Brown said. “But sometimes we’re bound by what the law says to make an arrest.”

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The man sat at the park bench in Chapin Park in Myrtle Beach on March 12, 2015. He stood, wobbled over to another bench and finally slide into a picnic table. He was talking loudly to no one in particular. A few homeless men said they knew the man and he has been known to drink mouthwash until he passed out. Within minutes of him sitting at the picnic table, two Myrtle Beach Police officers stood him up and walked him to a waiting patrol car. Photo by Janet Blackmon Morgan / jblackmon@thesunnews.com / @TSN_JBM Janet Blackmon Morgan jblackmon@thesunnews.com

Smoak said that he believes Myrtle Beach police have been doing a better job recently building rapport with the homeless population instead of just arresting them.

He believes ordinances like this are created due to the tourism-based economy. Asked whether he felt it unfairly targets homeless people, Smoak responded that the numbers discovered by The Sun News’ analysis seem to speak for themselves.

City Manager John Pedersen, who was an assistant manager at the time the ordinance was created, denied that its intent is to keep homeless people out of public view, but acknowledged that the city knew it could affect that population.

“The policy and practice is not restricted to (homeless people),” he said. “The idea is to make sure public places are being used the way they were intended.”

The ordinance was officially enacted as a council consent agenda item in May 2014 as part of motion that amended two existing ordinances dealing with trespass on public properties. Minutes from the meetings where the motion was introduced and finalized show no discussion beyond the city attorney explaining the changes.

Current council members Michael Chestnut, Mike Lowder and Philip Render, who were also on council in 2014, did not respond to requests for comment about The Sun News’ findings. Neither did Mayor Brenda Bethune.

Council Member Mary Jeffcoat, who’s been working on homelessness for the city since 2011, said she didn’t know the ordinance existed and added that it has never come up as an issue in any meetings she’s attended.

Kathy Jenkins, executive director of New Directions, a primary provider of services and shelter for the homeless population in Myrtle Beach, also said she hadn’t heard of the the ordinance and declined to comment.

Costly policies

Eric Tars, legal director for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, said that, unfortunately, these kinds of exclusion ordinances are becoming more common in U.S. cities.

Authorities in Wilmington, Delaware, have been banning homeless people from parts of their downtown for “aggressive panhandling” by issuing no-contact orders ⁠— typically used to keep perpetrators away from their victims ⁠— from the city, according to a Delaware News Journal report.

Tars’ organization recently published a report, Housing Not Handcuffs, that highlighted numerous anti-homeless laws, with one example being in Pullayup, Washington, which has an ordinance allowing city officials to ban a person from public properties for up to five years.

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A group of homeless men shelter in the stairwell of the Myrtle Beach parking deck in 2015. Janet Blackmon Morgan jblackmon@thesunnews.com

That report also makes the case that enacting policies targeting homeless such as anti-sleeping and anti-loitering ordinances end up costing cities more to enforce in the long run than just providing more housing. Myrtle Beach is the only municipality in Horry County with an exclusion ordinance, though most others have anti-sleeping policies.

“For elected officials presented with community complaints about homeless driving away business, the more expedient way to address it is to create an ordinance that they just can’t be there,” Tars said, “but it ends up costing two to three times more to cycle them through jails than to just provide housing.”

Tars noted that the issue cities face in making these decisions is that housing requires more upfront costs, while the ordinances appear cost-free on the surface.

Legally permissible?

He added that exclusion ordinances can also be dubious legally because they’re often too arbitrary, and he expressed concern that may be the case here after reading Myrtle Beach’s ordinance.

The ordinance states that, before issuing an ejectment notice, the city official or officer may, within their discretion, first give the person a warning, but no such warning is required.

Brown said Myrtle Beach police officers are taught to first seek verbal compliance, asking an offender to stop a nuisance behavior, and the notices are only used if the behavior continues.

Tars said the exclusion ordinances have also been successfully challenged on the basis of inadequate due process, including in 2011 when a judge ruled that St. Petersburg, Florida, violated the Fourteenth Amendment by not offering a way for alleged offenders to challenge their temporary bans.

Kirsten Anderson, the attorney who represented the homeless plaintiffs in that case, said the bans leave homeless people locked in a cycle with no choice but to violate the notice or be banished from their community — “which is ultimately the goal for these cities.”

A Myrtle Beach police officer is seen asking a homeless man and customer to leave a local McDonald's after reports of the homeless man trespassing.

Myrtle Beach, unlike St. Petersburg at the time, does have an appeal process spelled out in its ordinance, requiring a written request to the city manager within 10 business days of a notice being issued.

Pedersen said he handles those appeals personally, but he could only recall one recent example, when he decided to shorten the length of the ban, and it didn’t come from a homeless person.

Anderson, of Southern Legal Counsel, noted that her case only spoke to whether or not an appeals process was available, but a process also needs to be legally adequate, meaning proper notice of the process is given and the process itself is constitutional.

Myrtle Beach’s ordinance states that city personnel must inform the excluded person of their right to appeal, and Brown said officers are instructed to do so. He said all interactions are recorded on body cameras if someone challenges that they were adequately notified of an appeals process.

The appeals process is described within the written notice, but public records show officers provided only verbal notification of the ejection about 73 percent of the time. The ordinance also states that personnel aren’t required to get the offenders’ signature on the form, and most of the notices aren’t signed.

Brown suggested that offenders may just walk away, and he said that, in his experience, a lot of people don’t like signing official papers due to a certain level of distrust in dealing with police.

Myrtle Beach’s approach

As for enforcing the bans, Brown said the names of those ejected isn’t actively shared within the department, but the notices are on file, so if an officer calls in a name that’s banned from a certain area, dispatch will notify them. He added that some people are frequent offenders, and officers tend to know when they’re banned.

Records show 39 people were given more than one exclusion notice within the past two years, including five who were issued at least five notices.

One man received three notices in the same day, two banning him from Chapin Park and another banning him from the boardwalk. Ten of the notices included expulsion violation as a reason for the ban.

Brown said the department’s community team does a good job helping to find services and housing available for homeless people that want help, but a lot of them don’t accept it.

City Council recently approved the creation of a task force to help address homelessness, and Pedersen said the city has been focusing on the issue since 2011, when it helped bring multiple service providers under the umbrella of New Directions, which it helps fund.

“The mission is to get people in housing and employed, but we ran into the issue of what to do with people who don’t want to get out,” Pedersen said, emphasizing that the city uses a sort of carrot-and-stick approach. “… We try to assist people who want it, but won’t allow illegal or detrimental behavior to continue.”

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

How we did this story

Read more by clicking the arrow in the upper right.

Why did we report this story?

It started as a curiosity after hearing officers discussing an expulsion violation over the police scanner. When we found the ordinance, it appeared by the language that it would likely disproportionately impact the homeless population, so we decided to submit a Freedom of Information Act request to see how the ordinance was being used in practice.

Given the growing numbers of homeless people in the Myrtle Beach area, and the active ongoing discussions with city leaders on how best to address the issue, we feel shedding light on how homeless are being treated can help add to the public conversation.

How did we accumulate the data?

Once we received all the responsive records to our FOIA request, we put all available information into a spreadsheet which included: date of issuance, name, race, sex, location of the ban, length of the ban, name of the city official issuing the notice and a description of the behavior.

While the notices also list an offender’s address, the police department redacted that information, so The Sun News decided to look each individual up on Horry County’s public index as most had arrests associated with the behavior the led to their temporary expulsion. The public index lists their addresses — often something like 1 Homeless St. for a homeless person — which we added to the spreadsheet. We wrote that at least 198 of the notices were issued to homeless people because we couldn’t find addresses for seven people, and 25 others had out-of-state or out-of-county addresses, which could also be an indication of homelessness, or transience.

Looking at the completed spreadsheet, we noted which names appeared more than once and looked for trends in locations and behaviors that led to the bans. While many notices were overly descriptive, including one noting the offender was specifically drinking a Steel Reserve Hard Pineapple on the boardwalk, 32 others had no desciption at all.

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Investigative project reporter David Weissman joined The Sun News after three years working at The York Dispatch in Pennsylvania, where he earned awards for his investigative reports on topics including health, business, politics and education.
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