Bayou City

ACLU Sues City of Houston Over Anti-Encampment, Anti-Panhandling Ordinances

Most of what you see in this picture is illegal.
Most of what you see in this picture is illegal. Meagan Flynn
The ACLU of Texas has sued the City of Houston over its anti-encampment and anti-panhandling ordinances, which the ACLU claims effectively criminalize being homeless in Houston.

The ordinances, which went into effect Friday, make it illegal for people to sleep in tents, boxes, or any other makeshift shelter; have a grill; have belongings that don't fit in a container three feet tall, three feet wide and three feet long; illegal to panhandle within eight feet from someone on sidewalks or near payphones or ATMs; and illegal to block sidewalks, road medians or doorways. Violators can be charged with a misdemeanor and fined up to $500.

The ACLU, on behalf of three homeless people who sleep in tents to protect themselves from the elements and sometimes panhandle, is seeking an injunction in federal court to block Houston from enforcing these laws.

“The main thing these laws take from us is our dignity,” said plaintiff Tammy Kohr, a homeless woman who wants to keep her tent so she can change clothes in private. “We’re not bad people. We’re just trying to survive.”

The ACLU claims that the anti-encampment ordinance violates the homeless people's Eighth Amendment rights to protection from cruel and unusual punishment—because for them, sleeping outside is unavoidable conduct, particularly when they are unable to access emergency shelter beds because of capacity issues or because they are unable to get there. (The city has said homeless people can sleep on the ground outside, just not in tents.)

“In recent years, Houston has admirably managed to reduce homelessness by half by pursuing sensible and compassionate solutions to this nationwide crisis,” Trisha Trigilio, ACLU of Texas staff attorney, said in a statement. “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.”

As the Houston Press reported last month, according to the Coalition for the Homeless's annual count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people on one night in 2016, 164 beds of the 1,261 available were vacant.

There were 1,046 unsheltered homeless people that night in Harris County, the majority of whom are within Houston city limits.

Marilyn Brown, CEO of Coalition for the Homeless, told us Friday that Salvation Army and Star of Hope would be doing everything they could to take in those who lost their tents, even making space on the floor or finding room for extra cots.

But the ACLU charges that this is unsanitary and unsafe, and, simply, uncomfortable for those who feel they are losing their right to privacy and free will.

"Unsheltered homeless people in Houston are not in public by choice," Trigilio wrote in the suit. "By criminalizing possession of certain property in public, the camping ban effectively prohibits unsheltered homeless people from possessing that property at all. And by criminalizing the basic human need of sheltering oneself while in public, the camping ban effectively criminalizes homelessness altogether."

As for the anti-panhandling ordinance, the ACLU claims it violates First Amendment rights to free speech and that it "literally silences homeless Houstonians in order to shield more fortunate people from speech that makes them uncomfortable."

"The general tenor of debate over these speech restrictions makes it clear that the restrictions are not designed to address a specific public safety issue," the ACLU wrote. "Instead, they are designed to shield more fortunate Houstonians from the discomfort of being confronted with the needs of their neighbors living in extreme poverty, and to restrict speech advocating for direct donations to people experiencing homelessness."

The city has repeatedly claimed that public safety is the reason behind these ordinances, saying that criminals prey on homeless people who live in encampments, that they are prime areas for "illicit activity," and that panhandling near roadways and sidewalks is a hazard. Mayor Sylvester Turner has also countered critics by saying that the ultimate goal is to find these people permanent housing and get them on their feet, that "tents are not the answer." Last week he announced a large publicity campaign called "Meaningful Change, not Spare Change" to ask Houstonians not to give money to homeless people because it doesn't actually help them.

But plans to truly help them, to get them into permanent housing, are now jeopardized after the federal government recently put a freeze on housing vouchers, which has cut homeless housing funding by 60 percent, said Marilyn Brown.

The Press reached out to the city to ask how this will affect enforcement of the ordinance, especially given the ACLU's allegation that there is not enough space at shelters either.

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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn