Local residents and downtown business owners continue to express frustration about homeless people loitering in the area and creating a nuisance, sometimes using drugs or committing petty crimes.
On Sept. 21, Marsha Washington, of Tahlequah, posted a photo on Facebook of what appears to be someone sleeping in the gazebo downtown.
“OK, Tahlequah, what can we do about all these people walking around, begging for money, and sleeping at our parks where [our] kids/grand kids play?” Washington asked the post.
Several people have called for the construction of more homeless shelters in the city, while others blame the proliferation of vagrancy on those very services and the generosity of people who provide free meals, inexpensive medical services and temporary shelter.
“Other cities are busing them in because of the free/reduced health care we have,” said Angie Workman Cook, a downtown corridor business owner. “The sad thing is, the police hands are tied and they can’t do anything. If it’s during the day and they are just there [and] not bothering anybody, they are considered a citizen, just like everybody else.”
Police Chief Nate King said he was aware of that social media post and others like it, and he addressed the issue during a Tuesday, Oct. 5 Chief Chat segment on Facebook.
“In the end, regardless of race, creed, religion, social status –if someone is in the park and just sitting on the bench and minding their own business, it’s hard to make them leave. There’s no reason to make them leave, regardless of who they are,” said King.
King and his department has received several recent complaints about the homeless population – in fact, the highest number of complaints he’s received in a short amount of time.
“We’ve started doing a walk-through of the park regularly during the day and the night to prevent camping and sleeping in the parks,” said King.
The chief has been working toward a few solutions to combat homelessness and vagrancy. One would be to implement a curfew at each of the parks.
“There is no curfew for the parks, so I will get with legal counsel – City Attorney Grant Lloyd – and come up with an ordinance for posting basically hours of closing the city parks to public use. From my anticipation, it would be from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.,” said King.
Local merchants have personally contacted King to report the ongoing problems of loitering and panhandling, which they say are affecting their business.
“That’s what brought the new patrols about. I was forwarded a chat between downtown businesses about some of the issues they were having,” he said. “We’re just going to have a more active presence downtown and in the parks, to try to curb criminal behavior.”
Kristen Hughes, owner of Boomerang Diner, has had to call authorities several times about vagrants who are begging for money from customers.
“Especially at busy times when they see we have people standing and waiting, they will make a beeline over and start begging,” said Hughes. “We do our best to keep an eye out and run them off, but unfortunately, they just walk a little way down the block and continue.”
King urges the public to contact him directly if they aren’t seeing an active police presence in the downtown area.