After fielding what they say is an uptick in complaints about homeless people staying in Muss Bertolino Playground in north Kenner, city officials are looking for ways to help the people and ensure that residents feel safe going to the park.
One potential measure — an anti-loitering ordinance proposed by Councilman George Branigan, whose district includes the playground — is on the agenda for Thursday night's Kenner City Council meeting.
Branigan's proposed ordinance defines loitering as "remaining in essentially one location for no obvious reason, to linger, to saunter, to dawdle, to stand around ... or to otherwise spend time idly" in any public place.
Branigan said he's gotten complaints about people spending time under the bleachers at the playground and heading next door to the North Kenner Library to use the bathroom to wash up.
"My main concern is safety for the schoolkids and the people that use that playground," he said.
But Branigan's ordinance may never get to a vote. It's "overly vague," said Alanah Odoms Hebert, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana.
"It's standing, walking or being in an area where the city doesn't want you to be," she said. And while the U.S. Constitution doesn't explicitly offer protection for loitering, the ordinance could run afoul of the rights of free speech and freedom of assembly, she said.
Both federal and state courts have found similar measures unconstitutional, Hebert said.
"We know this was targeted at homeless people," she said. "Being poor is not a crime."
Branigan concedes the difficulty in enforcing such an ordinance.
"I've been told it's unconstitutional," he said. "We are going to be making some changes to make sure it's OK."
Branigan said he may even defer the ordinance indefinitely if other solutions present themselves.
One such solution may be piggybacking on the Jefferson Parish anti-loitering ordinance, which covers the library because it is technically parish property. But as for the playground, it's a "Kenner problem," Branigan said.
Kenner Mayor Ben Zahn also said that enforcing a loitering ban is impossible given the constitutional concerns. But, he said, the city needs to address the problem.
"We have a consistent problem in that area," he said. People have been "living under the bleachers and staying in the bathrooms."
One solution could be to lock the park in the evening hours, Zahn said. City officials will likely begin doing that next week.
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