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Federal court bars enforcement if city’s ban on homeless encampments

Score one for the law’s opponents.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A federal court on Tuesday temporarily blocked Houston from enforcing its fledgling ban on public encampments, dealing a blow to city efforts to manage escalating tensions between homeless people and the neighborhoods their camps abut.

The city’s three-month-old law – passed under intense pressure from residents and council members – bars the unauthorized use of temporary structures for “human habitation” and empowers police officers to arrest violators if they refuse medical treatment or social services.

Enforcing that prohibition may, U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt wrote, violate the homeless plaintiffs’ Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

“The plaintiffs have demonstrated that they are subject to a credible threat of being arrested, booked, prosecuted and jailed for violating the City of Houston’s ban on sheltering in public,” Hoyt said. “The evidence is conclusive that they are involuntarily in public, harmlessly attempting to shelter themselves – an act they cannot realistically forgo, and that is integral to their status as unsheltered homeless individuals.”

[…]

The city ordinance “was not designed to punish homeless people. Rather, it was passed to stop the accumulation of property in these encampments,” Marc Eichenbaum, special assistant to the mayor for homeless initiatives, said in an affidavit filed last week.

Hoyt’s order, however, focuses on the law rather than the city’s approach to enforcing it.

“The fact that the governmental entity has not fully enforced the alleged unconstitutional conduct does not bar a suit for injunctive relief where the alleged unconstitutional conduct is imminent or is in process,” he wrote.

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the restraining order. It should be noted that in the complaint filed by the plaintiffs, they also asked for an injunction prohibiting “Enforcement of Houston City Code Section 28-46 (Aggressive panhandling) and Section 40-27(b) (Impeding the use of a roadway)”, but that request was not granted. The city had been lightly enforcing the enjoined provision, which suggests there had been concerns about it from the beginning. I get where the Mayor and Council are coming from, but they need to take this as a sign that they chose an unwise path. I do not want to wake up one day and read that the city is shelling out $500 an hour to some fancypants law firm to defend this thing in court. Find a way to fix this in a way that everyone can live with and move on.

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3 Comments

  1. Bill Daniels says:

    I still think the solution is clear…..set up a cargo container community on the industrial, and less populated east side of Houston, and use the carrot/stick approach to move these people there, where Kubosh’s conservative religious groups can feed them, and liberal groups and social services can serve them in a more contained (no pun intended), orderly environment. Pay for it by moving Section 8 recipients in as well, using the Section 8 funds to pay for the containers, the retrofitting, and the basic services, water, sewer, electric, etc. I’m guessing that many current Section 8’ers, when faced with the choice of being forcibly moved to a container, will suddenly drop out of that welfare program. Apply that savings to the container community.

    The stick, of course, is continued police harassment and jail, in a “broken windows” policing strategy.

  2. C.L. says:

    @Bill… The government [or more specifically, the Republicans in government] have been steadfast in their attempts to decrease then decrease some more the funds allocated to lower income citizens. Who exactly, as a current elected official, do you believe is going to vote to allocate more funds to the Section 8 program to help pay for your ContainerTown ?

  3. Bob Jones says:

    “….harmlessly attempting to shelter themselves..”. I guess we turn a blind-eye to the Kush epidemic. They may be harmlessly trying to shelter themselves, but often the sum is worse than the parts.