Civil(ity) War

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

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.

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.

Because of such legal challenges, the Houston Legal Department advised the Regulatory Affairs Committee in February that creating a bullet-proof "sleeping, lying, sitting" restriction would be difficult. (They should have mentioned the proposed panhandling ordinance, too, because that has also been a hot court issue.)

But Houston's legal department did find a ray of hope in the city of Seattle. A federal appeals court in 1996 upheld Seattle's prohibition against sitting or lying down on sidewalks in certain areas of town.

Seattle withstood the legal challenge largely by drowning judges in records: Police statistics, inches-thick transcripts of a public hearing, even a tearjerker video featuring an 80-year-old lady who had to navigate her way through a sea of street people.

City Attorney Anthony Hall, in a February memo, advised the Council committee, "The City of Seattle relied on extensive and persuasive evidence of severe social and criminal problems relating to the activities prescribed, whereas there has been no suggestion of such similar effects within the City of Houston."

The Council's Regulatory Affairs Committee has made Seattle its poster child (Chairman Rob Todd's parents even live there), and it plans to follow that city's lead in gathering voluminous information. The committee sent the police Special Operations Division on a "fact-finding" mission to try to document reasons for enacting the ordinances.

Division Captain Dale Brown acknowledges they have been busy collecting statistics on what he characterizes vaguely as "public safety, use of space and mobility."

Brown says that after traffic complaints, citizens complain the most about panhandlers and street people on the sidewalks.

Councilman Todd says the Committee will soon formally release its version of civility ordinances. The package resembles Bradford's original proposals, but the panhandling ordinance has been toned down to a more "constitutional" level: Panhandlers would be required to stay eight feet away from those they solicit. (They could move closer for the exchange of money.) The laws would be designated Class C misdemeanors carrying fines or jail time for those who cannot pay.

Todd says hearings are possible as early as next month on the proposal to restrict daytime sleeping or lying on sidewalks.

If the current stampede downtown is any indication, those sessions could be lively, and packed. Downtown property is hot, and places that the homeless inhabit ™ weeded lots, abandoned buildings ™ are slowly being developed or renovated. A mammoth arch of mint-green steel, which will soon become the retractable roof of Enron Field stadium, rises just east of downtown's central business district and projects symbolic significance. The stadium has sparked tensions between downtown development people and street people, and foreshadows future conflicts as more building plans materialize.

Arthur Randall, a 33-year-old man hanging out near the the Star of Hope Men's Shelter, points to a sheer cliff of steel beams ™ the stadium rising a block away. "There was a time when cops would never come down here," he says. "Once it started coming up, the cops started coming down here. I understand that from a business point of view, but these are still human beings. They haven't broken the law."

Councilman Todd concedes that the new stadium prompted his focus on toughening the laws. He says he does not want unruly street people wandering around that area.

"There's a lot of liberals out there who get very weepy-eyed." he says. "I pointed out that it's not an emotional issue ™ people shouldn't think with their hearts, but with their heads."

Todd, who represents the suburban Clear Lake and Kingwood areas, frames the issue partly as a visitor to downtown. "When I have family and friends coming in from out of town, I want to be able to have a place to go."

Councilmember John Castillo, who represents the near east side (which includes the stadium area, along with most of the cities' homeless shelters), supports civility ordinances. Another backer is East End Chamber of Commerce president Mary Margaret Hansen. She says that she deals with incessant complaints that vagrants interfere with business in that area.  

Support also has come from Star of Hope. Spokeswoman Marilyn Fountain says she thinks the laws might somehow encourage more homeless to seek out services. "Right now, Star of Hope is not equipped to go out and rescue the homeless." But she hopes that instead of ticketing ordinance violators, police could shepherd them to shelter.

Captain Brown says police already practice "well-being checks," in which they offer needy-looking people referrals and rides to shelters. If civility ordinances pass, Brown says, cops will seek "voluntary compliance" from offenders. Jail would only be a last resort.

However, such humane pronouncements hardly satisfy critics, who question the motivation, and even the need for more laws in attacking the roots of the homelessness problems.

"Although it's not what they say, some of us believe that [the ordinances] would lead to locking up the homeless," says Councilman Chris Bell. He notes that a superior approach may be in responses such as the S.E.A.R.C.H. outreach program.

For the project, Bell championed a $250,000 city grant, which he calls a "breakthrough." The outreach program relies on a van and staffers to seek out those in need of services, get them off the streets and provide help.

'"My personal feeling is that there is a more realistic solution than the civility ordinances," Bell says. "The ordinances only deal with them while they are on the street." But the councilman says he would consider endorsing the ordinances if they were coupled with "other types of efforts that deal with the problem in a constructive way."

Earl Hatcher, who oversees single-room occupancy housing for low-income and homeless people, doubts the argument that the ordinances can help the homeless. "I don't think we need to create new laws," he says. "I want to help people who are in such a mental state that they're eating out of garbage cans, rather than ticketing them."

Bill Rogers, a Houston American Civil Liberties Union board member, calls the ordinances an attempt to "sanitize" the street. "Where are they supposed to go? The coffee shop at the Hyatt?," he says. "There's nowhere in the Constitution that says we're supposed to take care of homeless people, but we can choose out of kindness to help."

Others complain that no one has made it clear how the ordinances will alter Houston's street-people landscape. There's already a pile of laws on state and city books pertaining to things like drinking, trespassing and littering, that could be used to control unruly street people.

Captain Brown disputes that, saying current laws fall short in policing panhandling. For example, he says derelicts have to be completely blocking a sidewalk before they can be prosecuted under the existing ordinance.

Peter Linzer, a University of Houston law professor, worries that the civility ordinances will allow cops too much room to "lean on the homeless people." "If you drop your watch in the dumpster and you look for it, you can be pretty sure that they won't mess with you," he says. "But if you are a bum and you're doing that, chances are they're going to mess with you."

Leo Tucker might agree with that. After being told to get off his favorite curb, he gathered his wrist brace, his bundle of bedding, and his pink Ziploc bag of books, and shuffled across the street. He resumed reading, silently, on a sun-baked sidewalk. When two reporters approached, his face lit up. "I'll do an interview if you'll sit with me over there," he says, pointing to the curb where the cop sat in his car.

Accompanied by the journalists, he got to sit undisturbed on that shady curb for almost an hour, basking in the policeman's gaze.

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