A memorial for Josue Flores
A memorial for Josue Flores
Photo by Meagan Flynn

Houston City Council Expands Civility Ordinance in Near Northside

Houston City Council passed another civility ordinance on Wednesday, expanding the locations in Houston where people cannot sit, lie or sleep on the sidewalk for 16 hours of each day.

The ordinance creates the second area within Near Northside since October subject to the civility ordinance, which will now extend east of I-45 to Hardy Street, above Hogan Street and beneath Boundary Street. People will be unable to sit or lie on the sidewalks from 7 am. to 11 p.m.

"This is a breakthrough for the community," said Stella Mireles Walters, founder of the Near Northside's community group Safe Walk Home. "My hope is that [the civility ordinance] will deter some criminal elements from manifesting in the neighborhood and that there will be other programs that the community will put forth with the help of police and city officials to help guide these individuals for their total rehab healing."

Both civility ordinances in the Near Northside stemmed from a deluge of pleas from residents to City Council to do something about the vagrants often coming through the neighborhood. Those pleas grew louder after 11-year-old Josue Flores was stabbed to death while walking home from a Science Club party at Marshall Middle School in May 2016. City Council pledged action, especially after police announced that the suspected killer was a homeless veteran who was staying at the Salvation Army at the time of the attack, doubling residents' apprehension about the vagrants. (Murder charges were later dismissed against that man this year, after the Harris County District Attorney's Office announced DNA evidence nearly excluded him as a suspect.)

It is unclear, however, the extent to which civility ordinances actually succeed at reducing crime or preventing a heinous killing such as Flores's. In Midtown there is a civility ordinance, for example—but loitering on sidewalks is still common.

Tristia Bauman, a senior attorney with the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty, said there is no evidence that civility ordinances are linked to reduced crime, but that in fact, they are more likely to worsen homelessness. Bauman said that homeless people may either congregate in public spaces that are not banned under the ordinance — the way homeless people have gathered at the Wheeler Station and Chartres Streets encampments — or, they will be cited or arrested for violating the ordinance and faced with fees that could exacerbate their poverty.

"The unintended consequence of these generally is that they can actually entrench homelessness and make it more difficult to escape, and unintended consequence of laws restricting sidewalks could mean higher concentrations of homeless people in other public spaces that have not yet been regulated to forbid those activities, which will present its own set of problems," Bauman said. "When you move the problem from one location to another, you haven’t solved the problem. You’ve just moved it."

Bauman pointed to Tuesday's federal court ruling against Houston's anti-encampment ordinance, which bans sleeping in tents, boxes, and other makeshift structure, as having similar legal concerns to the civility ordinance. U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt issued a temporary restraining order against the city, blocking it from enforcing the ordinance, on the grounds that Houston can't punish homeless people for unavoidable behavior: trying to shelter themselves in public. Bauman said that, depending on how the ordinance is enforced and individual circumstances, the same logic could apply to sitting down in public spaces, since it's unavoidable for some homeless people. She acknowledged the need for the community to respond to the tragedy of Flores's death, but said the homeless "should not be scapegoated."

"It may be comforting to respond to a public tragedy with increased public safety measures, but we cannot as a society tolerate that public safety response to be one that unfairly targets a vulnerable, disfavored group," she said. "There is nothing to suggest that [civility ordinances] would have any impact on public safety itself, and there certainly seems to be no rational relationship between these restrictions and horrible tragedies."

Despite concerns about homelessness growing in Houston — perhaps due to increased visibility in various areas, said Mayor Sylvester Turner — homelessness has decreased about 60 percent since 2011, according to the Coalition for the Homeless, due in large part to the city's aggressive housing efforts. Mirales Walters said the community plans to work with the city to develop more programs for homeless people that would, in fact, actually help them, beyond offering them spare change or sandwiches.

At a post-City Council press conference, Turner again reiterated that permanent housing is the ultimate goal for the city's homeless population in spite of the ordinances.

"We've had a number of civility ordinances put in place, but many were put in place because you had individuals sleeping in the sidewalks. You had people exposing themselves in the public right of way, and people in these neighborhoods were concerned about all of that," Turner said. "We've had a number of neighborhoods that have come forward to us for these civility ordinances, and some view [homeless people] setting up under bridges, camps, as the place where they can be. But that's why our primary approach needs to always be to provide permanent housing, and that's what we're focused on."

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