HOUSTON — A federal court has reinstated an ordinance that will allow Houston law enforcement to ticket or arrest people living in tents and encampments set up on public property given certain protocols have been followed.
On Thursday, the court ruled in favor of the city after the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas filed a federal lawsuit condemning current ordinances. The decision reversed a ruling, which temporary lifted the city’s tent ban in consideration of residents displaced by Hurricane Harvey.
ACLU of Texas — a civil rights organization that promotes legislative change impacting a wide-range of social issues and causes — filed the lawsuit after Houston police raided a homeless encampment in August 2017.
The group claimed the current no-camping and encampment laws criminalized certain Houston residents based on their “homelessness” status and violated the constitutional rights of homeless people.
However, the court ruled the encampment ordinance was not passed to punish these individuals. The law was developed in response to the increasing number of encampments that presented a significant health and safety risks to the surrounding public.
According to the city, the encampment ordinance allows officials to create safe environments for unsheltered residents living in encampments and the public surrounding them.
When can police ticket or arrest a homeless person?
The ordinance bans the erection of tents or other temporary structures to facilitate encampment or the accumulation of large amounts of property in public spaces, court documents said.
According to the court ruling, an individual can only be asked to move or pack up given they’ve built a structure on public property or present a foreseeable danger to others.
The person can only receive a citation after a warning has been issued; the warning has been documented in the city database; and the person has been given a reasonable amount of time comply.
The person can only be arrested after a written warning has been issued; the person has been given an opportunity to comply; and the arresting agency has offered the suspect a place to go, an alternative shelter and other resources.
The ordinance does not ban sleeping in public.
Criminalizing the homeless
The ACLU of Texas believes the encampment ordinance criminalizes the homeless— causing these individuals to be singled out and making it harder for them to receive much-needed help.
“[The homeless] are now at risk of being arrested just for being homeless,” ACLU of Texas Senior Staff Attorney Trisha Trigilio said. “Sheltering yourself is not a crime; it is a basic human need and our clients will continue to fight for the dignity and the rights of Houston’s homeless population.”
The organization claimed the results of the laws created a form of cruel and unusual punishment for the homeless. The forced removal also impacted the person’s ability to secure employment.
“Homelessness is a public policy problem that can only be solved by housing, not by arrests,” Executive Director Terri Burke of ACLU of Texas said. “Enforcing these ordinances will not end homelessness; it will only displace the homeless themselves, while saddling taxpayers with the bill and creating yet another category of victimless crimes.
During the controversial debate, the court decided ACLU of Texas did not provide enough evidence to show the ordinances are prejudiced against homeless people, or places these individuals in danger.
The court added these ordinances apply to all Houston residents and the encampment ban does not mean a person can be arrested or ticketed for merely being present, sleeping or possessing personal property on an encampment site.
Protecting the public from disease and danger
According to the city, homeless encampments present a health hazard for several key reasons.
First, these communities lack running water, restroom facilities and waste management services. The encampments quickly become breeding grounds for pest and communicable diseases that threaten the neighboring residents.
The city reports having removed more than 16 tons of trash and other waste from the Chartres St. and Wheeler St. encampments.
According to the city, it’s not just about protecting housed or gainfully employed individuals. Life inside these encampments is dangerous. Homeless people have been injured and some even killed because of living in the encampments.
Lastly, the encampments prevent other residents from using the public spaces as intended.
Will the city ever find a solution?
Despite being sympathetic to the needs and struggles of Houston’s homeless residents, the court found the ordinances to be reasonable and pertinent to the health and welfare of all Houstonians.
In the meantime, ACLU of Texas has requested Houston officials delay enforcement of the ordinance until alternatives to ticketing or imprisonment can be found.
“Should the City decide to seek more effective and humane solutions to this crisis, they will find a stout ally in the ACLU of Texas,” Burke said. ”Until then, we’ll continue to defend the constitutional rights of Houston’s homeless.”