Fuhr answers questions at meeting

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Cheryl Schweizer/Columbia Basin Herald Moses Lake Police Chief Kevin Fuhr answered questions from residents at a town hall meeting Sunday.

MOSES LAKE — Homelessness and panhandling in Moses Lake were among the subjects discussed at a community meeting Sunday hosted by Moses Lake Police Chief Kevin Fuhr.

It was part of a series of community meetings where Fuhr provides information about the police department and answers questions from residents.

Homelessness has become a high-profile issue following two rulings by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The court ruled that homeless people can camp on public property if the community doesn’t have an alternate place for them. Cities must allow people to camp in public spaces if any existing shelters are full. And any shelters that might have room cannot have a religious affiliation.

“After having long conversations with our city attorney, we at this point – and I hate to say this – we are taking a hands-off approach with the camping aspect of this,” Fuhr said. If there is criminal activity, police will respond.

Fuhr said an MLPD officer was driving by a homeless encampment last week, saw a man injecting himself and stopped to investigate. “We are still taking an active approach to the criminal side.”

City officials are looking at their options, Fuhr said. “We are working on a way to fix it, but we’ve got to do it legally, and within the confines of the court case.”

Fuhr said he wasn’t advocating for or against a shelter, but that the existence of a shelter is only part of the solution. Each year there’s a count of homeless in Grant County, and the 2018 “Point in Time” survey showed 58 verified homeless people in Moses Lake.

The city does have a warming center, open from December through February. “We were averaging between 25 and 30 people” at the warming center during the winter of 2017-18, Fuhr said. “Just having a shelter alone is not going to fix it.”

Panhandling is Constitutionally-protected free speech, Fuhr said. “Panhandling and using signs to panhandle is perfectly legal.” The city does have ordinances against “aggressive” panhandling, where panhandlers stop or follow people, and they can’t impede traffic on the sidewalk or on the road.

Fuhr said he would recommend against giving people money. “If you want to help in some way, give them something to eat or donate to your church or an organization that helps the homeless.”

Cheryl Schweizer can be reached via email at education@columbiabasinherald.com.

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