Houston 101

It's Close to Impossible to Be Homeless in Houston Without Breaking the Law

Most of what you see in this picture—Spencer Stevens's home—is illegal in Houston.
Most of what you see in this picture—Spencer Stevens's home—is illegal in Houston. Meagan Flynn
It's mid-afternoon underneath the U.S. 59 overpass in Midtown and Spencer Stevens is cooking chicken on his grill. His breakfast — eggs — is beside him in a carton, and the pan he used to cook them rests atop some bricks. He sits in a comfy office chair outside the tent where he sleeps at night. Being homeless, he said, is like being in the reality TV show Survivor.

“You have to be self-sufficient out here, or you will not make it,” Stevens said. “The people that come out and feed, they bring sack lunches sometimes, which consists of bologna sandwiches. But if you want to eat the things that you want to eat, for your own survival, you have to have a grill.”

Stevens became homeless a year and a half ago after losing his job as a forklifter around the same time he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Having the heart disease has essentially barred him from doing any other similar manual labor jobs, he said, because he can't pass the physical. He says he believes that the city will help him with housing, as it has thousands of others like him since 2012, and he is now on the waiting list.

But in the meantime, he says, he feels like the city is forcing him into a homeless camp or shelter, where he can't make the rules about his own life. Where he can't be self-sufficient. Unfortunately for Stevens, virtually everything about his daily life, from sleeping, to eating, to his storage of his belongings, is slated to become illegal in the city of Houston on May 12. In fact, it is already illegal for people to come bring him and others around him bologna sandwiches, unless they have a permit from the city.

That's thanks to various ordinances in Houston, passed in recent weeks or years, that advocates say have criminalized homelessness to the point that, if you end up on the streets in Houston, the most you can do without ending up in cuffs is sit on a piece of cardboard in the grass and keep to yourself.

Here is a list of everything that a homeless person can get arrested for within Houston city limits, or that others can get arrested for if they try helping them without permission.

1. They can't block a sidewalk, stand in a roadway median or block a building doorway. (AKA they can't panhandle).
Just so that there's no confusion, the anti-panhandling ordinance passed April 11 explicitly states that city employees or agents are allowed to stand on the sidewalk or road median to solicit money on behalf of a nonprofit corporation, group or other organization. Because asking for money while wearing suits is much more societally acceptable.

Punishment: Arrest and fine up to $500

2. They also can't do any of these things — blocking walkways — under state law that already existed.
But having a redundant city ordinance certainly gets the message across loud and clear. And hey, maybe it's nice of the city to give police officers options: They can arrest you under state law — much meaner — or just the plain ol' city law!

Punishment: Arrest and jail time up to six months and/or fine up to $2,000

3. They can't sleep in tents, boxes or any other makeshift shelter on public property.
But it is completely acceptable to sleep on cardboard on the ground. They just can't have roofs like the lucky rest of us. The city said that the anti-encampment ordinance is about safety, both for the homeless people living in encampments and for neighbors in surrounding area. Encampments, a spokeswoman told us, are prime areas for drugs or illicit activity.

Stevens said that officers came by U.S. 59 the other day to inform everyone that, on May 12, anyone in tents will have to leave (just the tents — again, cardboard slabs: fine). “The reason why they're taking the tents, they say that when they come by they can't see inside. They want to know what we're doing,” Stevens said. “As long as we live out here in the public, apparently we have no right to privacy.”

Punishment: Arrest and fine up to $500

6. They can't trespass on private property under state law.
For example, if they set up their cardboard slab in field of grass they didn't know was private property—or they were trying to find shelter by sleeping underneath a building awning because they're not allowed to have a roof anymore — they can be arrested for trespassing. One homeless, schizophrenic man the Houston Press featured in a story about the intersection of mental illness and jail was arrested for going into a school building at Texas Southern University, where he wanted to one day study.

Punishment: Arrest and jail time up to six months and/or fine up to $2,000

4. They also can't have heating devices.

Stevens isn't sure what he's going to do with his small grill. He bought it using money he saved up. Apparently, back to bologna sandwiches.

Punishment: Arrest and fine up to $500

5. They can't carry around belongings that take up space more than three feet long, three feet wide, three feet tall.
This is also under the anti-encampment ordinance. The City of Houston has been cleaning up belongings and trash left behind by homeless people (the city is adamant that the stuff is left behind, not currently belonging to people). But under the ordinance, having large belongings apparently can lead to confiscation by police. As homeless people explained to Mayor Sylvester Turner while testifying against the ordinance: "You tote your life in a bag when you're homeless. You literally have to tote your life in a bag."

Punishment: Arrest and fine up to $500

6. People can't spontaneously feed more than five homeless people without a permit.
Feeling compassionate and decide to make a bunch of peanut butter sandwiches to hand out to people underneath a bridge? Or give a load of leftovers from dinner to a homeless family of five sitting on the sidewalk? (Are they in your way? Illegal!) That's really nice but you can't feed the homeless without permission. Mayor Annise Parker's administration passed the city's anti-feeding ordinance in 2014.

Attorneys Eric Dick and Randall Kallinen sued the city last week on behalf of a Christian man who often feeds the homeless tuna and crackers that he keeps with him for whenever he sees hungry people. The plaintiff, Philipp Bryant, says that the ordinance violates his religious freedom by forcing him to get permission whenever he feels like being a Good Samaritan.

“These are mean-spirited laws,” Dick said, referencing the charitable feeding ban and anti-encampment ordinances. “They're un-American. It's a mandate: Take [help at a shelter] or go to jail. You'll either be fed at a shelter or you'll be fed in jail.”

Dick said that, if the city is concerned about homeless people congregating to do “illicit activity,” then why doesn't it arrest them for doing the alleged illicit activity instead of creating new, controversial ordinances that open the city up to lawsuits and make homeless people feel even more unwanted?

As one 59-year-old homeless man, a Navy veteran reading a book under U.S. 59, told us: “They say, 'if you don't leave, we're gonna arrest you.' Why? Is incarceration the answer to every problem in life?”
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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