This happened last week; I didn’t have a chance to really look at it before now.
Residents who impede the use of a Houston roadway, or block a sidewalk or building entrance could be charged with a misdemeanor under an ordinance passed Wednesday by City Council.
The ordinance aimed at curbing panhandling was paired with a ban on unauthorized encampments in public places – an effort to crack down on homeless camps that have drawn resident and council member ire in recent months. The encampment ban is set to take effect in 30 days.
Mayor Sylvester Turner said he thinks the new rules help to achieve a “delicate balance” between ensuring safety and helping the homeless.
“The whole notion is to strike a balance between addressing their needs and their concerns and putting them in a better position in their lives, and at the same time the neighborhood concerns in terms of people being in their doorway or blocking the sidewalk,” Turner said.
Tristia Bauman, a senior attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, warned of potential constitutional violations, also saying she thought the laws would be ineffective.
“This law as written is constitutionally concerning, and I think it’s very vulnerable to legal challenge,” she said of the encampment rules. “To create a punishment for people who are attempting to survive on the street when they have no alternative is a violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.”
Marc Eichenbaum, special assistant to the mayor for homeless initiatives, said the city has worked with groups like Star of Hope and the Salvation Army to ensure there are sufficient shelter beds for the city’s homeless.
“For individuals who want to go to a shelter, there is a place for them,” Eichenbaum said.
Bauman pointed to those with mental health issues or disabilities who may be unable to go to a shelter.
Turner’s plan to curb homelessness, announced last month, also includes proposals to house 500 chronically homeless people by early September and construct alternative, professionally staffed “low-level” shelters under highway overpasses or on private property.
These outdoor spaces are intended to help accommodate people who are unable or unwilling to go to an indoor shelter.
Here’s an earlier story about what Council had been considering; the proposed ordinance was tagged until last week. As someone who currently works downtown, I can attest that panhandlers are a nuisance, and can sometimes be scary. Houston has made a lot of progress in reducing the number of homeless residents, especially homeless veterans, and part of this program is intended to further that work. There are some details to be filled in, and there are concerns about the legality of this ordinance as well as its likely effectiveness. I’m not sure what to think at this point.
In the meantime, there’s also this.
Phillip Bryant carries tuna cans and water bottles in his car and often spontaneously delivers them to the poor he sees throughout the Houston streets.
However, Bryant, who describes himself as a devout Christian, contends the city’s charitable feeding ordinance prohibits this and also violates his religious rights.
He filed a lawsuit Wednesday night in Harris County court challenging the ordinance, which requires advocates to obtain permission from property owners – public or private – before feeding more than five people. Violation of the ordinance is considered a criminal misdemeanor and is punishable by up to $2,000, according to the lawsuit.
Although not mandatory, the city encourages those feeding the homeless to register as a food service organization and receive food safety training. The only required step is a person must seek permission from the property owner before feeding more than five people.
I’ll be honest, I’m a little unclear as to what the point of contention is here, but I guess we’ll see what the courts make of it.