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Lawsuit filed against Houston panhandling ordinance

From the inbox:

The ACLU of Texas announced today that it had filed a lawsuit on behalf of three homeless Houstonian plaintiffs adversely affected by the City of Houston’s camping and panhandling ordinances. Taken together, these ordinances illegally deprive homeless Houstonians of shelter, infringe on their right to free speech and ultimately constitute a criminalization of homelessness itself.

“In recent years, Houston has admirably managed to reduce homelessness by half by pursuing sensible and compassionate solutions to this nationwide crisis,” said Trisha Trigilio, staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas. “But these latest ordinances abandon that humane approach. The City says they’re meant to get people into shelters with ‘tough love,’ but the truth is the shelters are full and Houston’s homeless have nowhere else to go.”

“Laws that criminalize homelessness are ineffective, waste limited public resources and violate basic human and constitutional rights,” said Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. “The Law Center shares the ACLU’s concerns that Houston’s new ordinances governing outdoor camping and panhandling violate homeless persons’ constitutional rights.”

“The main thing these laws take from us is our dignity,” said Plaintiff Tammy Kohr. “We’re not bad people; we’re just trying to survive.” Plaintiff Eugene Stroman added, “This law shows little respect or sympathy for the impoverished people of Houston. Living in shelters just isn’t an option for us, but if you can’t find your own place to live, you’re treated like a criminal.”

The lawsuit requests an injunction prohibiting the tent ban, the panhandling ban and the seizure of homeless Houstonians’ private property.

See here for some background. The ordinance went into effect on Friday, which is no doubt why the lawsuit was filed on Monday morning. The Chron story adds some more details.

Mayor Sylvester Turner defended the ordinances in response to questions from the Chronicle at a Monday afternoon news conference, saying the rules aimed to balance constitutional rights and “the legitimate public health safety and welfare of all citizens in the public space.”

“Based on my reading of the lawsuit filed by the ACLU, they would have us do nothing,” the mayor added. “We have chosen to work with those living on the streets on a one by one basis to assess and address their individual needs and provide compassionate and meaningful solutions. Make no mistake, this is a public safety issue and we cannot bury our heads in the sand and pretend that it does not exist. The question is what is the best way or ways to transition people from living on the street.”

The mayor has said the panhandling ordinance doesn’t put an undue burden on free speech, as the ACLU lawsuit contends.

[HPD Captain William Staney, who oversees the mental health division] said Friday that Houston police would slowly ramp up enforcement. He said no one was arrested, cited or even formally warned on Friday. However, police eventually would take away people’s property if they keep more belongings than would fit in a 3-foot cube, as the ordinance requires.

The police department circulated a memo Friday emphasizing that arrest is a last resort and that officers must first offer access to medical help, addiction treatment and temporary shelter before taking action under the new rules.

While the ACLU lawsuit and some homeless people contend that shelters don’t have room, the mayor’s special assistant for homeless initiatives differed on Monday.

“We’ve worked with these shelters to make sure that even if a bed is not available that there’s still room for them to get them out from the elements inside where there’s additional services,” said the assistant, Marc Eichenbaum.

I agree that the city has done a lot of work to reduce homelessness in Houston, all to its credit, and I think there’s a lot of merit to the push to redirect charity towards support services and away from giving a dollar to people on the streets. Mayor Turner believes this ordinance is compliant with previous court rulings. Obviously, that remains to be seen, and the fact that advocates for the homeless think this ordinance will do more harm than good cannot be overlooked. I would really rather see this get mediated instead of litigated. Surely there are things the city can do to the ordinance to settle this. The Press has more.

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2 Comments

  1. Jason Hochman says:

    I would like to see some real evidence that “homelessness has been reduced by half.” Sure the census of home shows less homeless people in Houston, but have they simply been driven out of the city or put in prisons and jails, as opposed to finding a permanent place to live. Turner has continued Parker’s policies of “helping” the homeless by fining them, pushing them out of certain parts of the city and making it more and more difficult for individuals, churches and other organizations to help, unless sanctioned by the city. I know that the panhandlers can be annoying, and they make me feel guilty for having all that I have, but they have the same rights as anyone else. Sweeping them away so that the city can appear world classy and attract Super Bowls and such is wrong.

  2. Bill Daniels says:

    I’d still promote the modified shipping container camps as the solution to the homeless problem. Pay for it by transitioning Section 8 and public housing residents to live in the shipping container camps as well. Apply the money we would have spent on Section 8 vouchers to building the containers out and setting up the camps.

    Save the actual public housing for the disabled and elderly. Over time, more people will be able to receive help, and the spartan nature of a shipping container community will hopefully inspire many of the residents to move forward and leave. More turnover means more people are helped.

    Start people in 40′ containers, and if residents break the rules, move them to a 20′ community. They are still out of the elements.

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