It has been quiet since the firestorm over Houston's camping and panhandling ordinances put the city in an ugly national spotlight.
Monday marked one month since the ordinances – which, among other things, make it a crime for people to sleep in tents, boxes and other makeshift shelters in public – went into effect. While Houston officials, including Mayor Sylvester Turner, claimed that the laws are just another step to move Houston’s chronically homeless from the streets to shelters, enraged opponents were quick to criticize what they see as heavy-handed laws.
Three days after implementation of the ordinances, which were passed by Houston City Council on April 12, the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas filed suit against the City of Houston, declaring that the ordinances are unconstitutional and essentially make homelessness a crime.
How many warnings and citations have police issued? And how many arrests have they made in the month since the ordinance took effect? Are those signs under some bridges that read “You can’t solicit here/sleep overnight” part of the enforcement strategy? Who knows, because neither City Hall nor the Houston Police Department is dishing.
“We asked the city for information about their plans to enforce the camping ban before it went into effect, and the city refused to respond. I’ve gotten no official word about their intentions,” says ACLU of Texas staff attorney Trisha Trigilio.
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The Houston Press attempted to chat with Marc Eichenbaum, the City of Houston’s special assistant to the mayor for homeless initiatives, as well as a spokesperson in the police department's public information office. At press time, neither had responded to questions from the Press.
As previously reported, the ordinances make it nearly impossible for Houston’s homeless population to stay above the law and avoid the misdemeanor charge that carries a fine of up to $500.
Along with sleeping structures, it’s also a crime to have a grill; to have possessions that can't be squeezed into a three-foot-tall by three-foot-wide by three-foot-long container; to panhandle within eight feet of someone who’s standing on a sidewalk, as well as near payphones and ATMs; and to block sidewalks, medians and doorways.
While the city has so far stonewalled ACLU of Texas, staff attorney Trigilio says that Houston is facing a critical deadline. “Their response to our clients’ claims is due on June 23," she says.