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News Channel 3 in-depth: ‘Trespassing at the Terminal’

A major change is underway at the Palm Springs International Airport in response to what the city has described as a growing problem.

Earlier this year, the city council swiftly and unanimously changed an ordinance to make it illegal for the homeless to take shelter there. And now, starting this week, the ordinance has gone into full effect.

Cellphone video taken by a Palm Springs Airport employee shows what police and city officials say has been a "difficult problem" there for the past several months: more than a dozen homeless people, taking shelter inside the terminal and just steps away from passengers.

"It certainly can't help public relations for the city to have a bunch of homeless people at the airport. I mean, something needs to be done for the homeless but the solution is not for them to camp at the airport," passenger Michael Shapiro said.

According to a Palm Springs staff report, during a single week, the airport had up to 14 homeless people staying there, including someone who had been there for up to six weeks. The terminal is open 24/7.

Palm Springs Police Chief Andy Mills told Peter Daut the airport is not meant to be a shelter.

"People would bring in shopping carts as well as all their earthly belongings, and food containers and sometimes animals. So when you have that in a pretty small area where people are trying to rent cars and pick up their luggage, it really became a difficult problem, not only for the traveling customers but for them as well. That's not a healthy place for them to be either," Mills said.

Daut replied, "So this was more than just an eyesore?"

Mills responded, "Right. It was a health problem." 

The city agreed, so in January voted to re-write the trespassing ordinance, specifically making it "unlawful for a person to enter or remain in any area of the airport unless the person has legitimate airport business."

Anyone else could be "promptly removed" from the airport, and also charged with a misdemeanor punishable with a $1,000 fine or up to six months in jail.

Bart Davis said he recently became homeless, and had been sleeping at the airport since he felt safe there at night.

"The airport had resources over there. They had the internet, they have water so I can bathe, and things like that. And that's why most every one of us was over there," Davis said.

Daut asked him, "Since you're no longer at the airport, where are you sleeping now?"

Davis replied, "Right now I'm sleeping in a dirt lot in Palm Springs."

Arlene Rosenthal, the president of the nonprofit Well in the Desert, which provides services to the homeless, said people should not have to sleep at the airport, but there's currently no overnight shelter in Palm Springs.

"There are no other places. It's tragic," she said. "Women won't be raped at the airport, men will not be hit over the head with a baseball bat, people can avoid robberies. But there's something wrong about the picture. Our people should not have to sleep at a public place where people are traveling. What should be is that the city and county provide immediate housing."

Just days before the ordinance went into effect, News Channel 3 went with officers throughout the airport as they warned the homeless about it, and provided them with information on where to get help, including the nearby Palm Springs Access Center. They then left the airport.

Less than a week later-- the day the ordinance actually took effect-- News Channel 3 went back with officers to the airport, and did not discover a single homeless person.

"I'm actually kind of surprised, because we did have a little bit of pushback initially when we were advising them about the ordinance months ago, but it seems like gradually they've been leaving the airport," Palm Springs police officer Anthony Pilutik said. Daut asked,

"So it seems like your message has been working?"

Pilutik replied, "So far, so good."

Police said they want to be as compassionate as possible to help the homeless find a place to get services. Each person they encounter is given a list of shelters and resources. 

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Peter Daut


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