Civil(ity) War

Does Houston have to get tougher on street people with new laws?

Leo Tucker doesn't really belong anywhere, but he's still found a nice little spot to read his paperbacks and sometimes drink a beer. The 57-year-old disabled veteran sits on a curb across the street from the downtown Star of Hope Men's Shelter, where he usually sleeps at night. A gutted, six-story old hotel at his back, on the corner of La Branch and Preston, provides the only good shade around. He would like to move his frail body off the curb and onto the sidewalk, but the sidewalk is fenced off.

On a recent afternoon a police officer parked his car next to the curb, where he would stay for four hours, and told Tucker to get off the curb or go to jail. Something about his feet being in the street. Tucker was angry and indignant — what law gave him the right, anyway?

If some city officials get their way, there won't be any confusion about what law would give cops the right to shoo people like Leo Tucker off the streets and sidewalks. City Council's Regulatory Affairs Committee is preparing to release proposed "civility ordinances" to restrict behavior like lounging on sidewalks, begging and burrowing through trash.

Leo Tucker would be one of those targeted by proposed ordinances.
Daniel Perlaky
Leo Tucker would be one of those targeted by proposed ordinances.

Wanting the ordinances is not enough, however. Officials will have to show that Houston really needs them — that there is a genuine problem which existing laws can't handle. Otherwise Houston, like other cities, could have those laws overturned by courts.

Downtown businesses apparently love the proposals. But some critics say supporters only want to sanitize the booming downtown area of unsightly individuals. It's not possible, they say, to just make vagrants disappear.

Proponents are fond of pointing out that the laws, if passed, would apply to all Houstonians, even drunk club-goers who might choose to lounge on sidewalks along the Richmond Strip.

But in reality, civility ordinances would primarily target street people who make their livings, or their homes, on sidewalks and in empty lots amid the skyscrapers and on the depressed fringes of downtown. Even if all of Houston's estimated 10,000 street people chose to live in shelters or low-fee housing ™ many won't because of rules and costs ™ there wouldn't be enough room to house even half of them.

The city law that deals directly with street people is the 1992 ordinance against aggressive panhandlers. It requires them to move at least eight feet away if the person they are soliciting requests it. But court records show only 16 prosecutions in the last two years. Police say it is seldom used because most people confronted by aggressive panhandlers do not want to take time to press charges.

Panhandlers are not necessarily part of the homeless population targeted in other civility ordinances. Both types of street people have been generally left alone by police in the past, despite occasional reports of officers disbanding homeless camps. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty issued a survey this year on the treatment of street people in 49 American cities. Of Houston, the report says, "In general, the police have been sensitive to homeless people and tend to leave them alone. There have been no recent crackdowns."

Crackdowns: No. But worries: Yes. Concerns about street people problems were around long before anyone heard of "civility ordinances" or the latest wave of trendy downtown nightclubs. Chuck Jackson, who directs operations for the business-funded Houston Downtown Management District, says the push for stronger laws stretches back to 1992. About 40 homeless people accused police of trying to roust them from their quarters under a bridge at the deteriorating Allen's Landing, where Main meets Buffalo Bayou. The police denied ever threatening the encampment.

Jackson says that incident inspired him to try to find new ways to deal with the problems. "Jail is not the answer. Just running people from neighborhood to neighborhood is not the answer."

Downtown business owners have complained to Jackson "several hundred" times a year about the activities of derelicts. He says he once looked out his Main Street office window to see a man urinating in a trash can — and another man soon eating a sandwich from that same receptacle. Jackson wrote memos last year to Police Chief C.O. Bradford, calling for laws similar to the current proposals.

And Last September, Chief Bradford unveiled his plans to restrict street activity. He wanted ordinances to prohibit rummaging through trash on city sidewalks, panhandling within 50 feet of bus stops, ATMs or parking places, and sleeping, sitting or laying on sidewalks between 6 a.m. and 11:30 p.m. Bradford christened them "civility ordinances," an umbrella euphemism first used by Seattle officials.

The Regulatory Affairs Committee of City Council referred the chief's plan to the city legal department. Attorneys for the city warned that similar laws elsewhere had been overturned by courts.

Dallas, for instance, was ordered in 1994 to stop enforcing its ordinance against sleeping in a "street, alley, park, or other public places." A federal district court found that ordinance violated the Eighth Amendment safeguards against cruel and unusual punishment. The ruling essentially found that street people were being punished for being impoverished.

While the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals later ruled in favor of Dallas, police there have stopped enforcing the ordinance. Other courts have rejected all or portions of similar laws in Berkeley, Miami, Cincinnati, Atlanta and Jacksonville.

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