Houston 101

It's Now a Crime in Houston to Sleep in Tents, Leaving Some Homeless in Lurch

A home now considered illegal in the City of Houston.
Meagan Flynn
A home now considered illegal in the City of Houston.
The City of Houston has now made it a misdemeanor to sleep in a tent or box, to carry around personal belongings that take up a cubic space larger than three feet by three by three feet, to block sidewalks or doorways or stand in the median of a roadway.

Such are the new rules for homeless people in Houston, pursuant to the anti-encampment ordinance and anti-panhandling ordinance City Council passed Wednesday. Should they flout those rules, or fail to comply with a police officer's warning to pack up camp or stop panhandling on the sidewalk, they can be arrested and fined up to $500.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said the ordinances strike a “very elegant balance” between protecting homeless people and protecting people in surrounding neighborhoods where they are most concentrated.

“We are prepared and want to assist people in getting to a better spot in their lives,” Turner said, following passage of the anti-encampment ordinance. “By passing this ordinance, the tents, they're not allowed, items that won't fit in a three-by-three-by-three [container], not allowed — but we are willing and will continue to work to put people in a better place.”

Turner repeated the sentiment like a broken record when homeless or formerly homeless people themselves came to City Hall to tell the mayor why having a tent was important to them.

In perhaps the most passionate segment of the public hearing, one woman and her husband — called to the podium as Mr. and Mrs. Proctor — told council members about how they packed their lives into two suitcases, a cart full of belongings and five backpacks after losing their apartment in December 2015. They hit the streets at first without any shelter, and said that because of Mr. Proctor's criminal record, finding help or even temporary shelter proved difficult. In January, Mrs. Proctor fell ill and spent nine days in the hospital.

While there, the city threw away everything they owned, save for important belongings in one backpack the couple took to the hospital, Mrs. Proctor told council members.

Once a local church helped the couple get a tent, Mrs. Proctor said, the tent became at least a safer place to leave their belongings while out hunting for jobs or housing.

“Because we had a tent, I'm no longer homeless,” Mrs. Proctor said. “You're toting your life in a bag when you're homeless. You literally tote your life in a bag. And you can't leave it somewhere, because the city will throw it away. You cant get a job when you're toting your life in a bag either. How do you go to a job interview when you have two suitcases and five backpacks?”

Mr. Proctor, who could not join his wife in the affordable apartment due to his record, simply asked Mayor Turner what he was going to do to ensure his belongings wouldn't be stolen or confiscated while he was out hunting for work, if he wasn't allowed to have a tent. The last time he had been to the Star of Hope shelter, he said, homeless people took his things too.

The mayor's message to them: “What we are saying is we are here to help, OK? We are here to help. But the tent is not the answer. But we are here to help, either permanent supportive housing, OK, or at least to direct people to a better place if they don't want the supportive housing. The tent is no longer going to be allowed. But we are here to help.”

The anti-encampment ordinance and anti-panhandling ordinance are part of a larger strategy to reduce homelessness in Houston that does in fact include more initiatives intended to help the homeless find housing. Notably, Mayor Turner plans to add 215 shelter beds at a new Star of Hope facility on Reed Road and also construct temporary outdoor shelter facilities with bathrooms for people who don't want to go to the other indoor shelters. Turner wants to see 500 homeless people housed by September, though right now, the city is only housing homeless people who have been on the streets longer than one year.

The housing efforts through The Way Home Initiative — a network of more than 100 homelessness service providers — have been largely successful, with overall homelessness reduced by 57 percent in Houston since 2012.

But in the eyes of some advocates, the ordinances passed Wednesday are a step backward. Trisha Trigilio, staff attorney with the ACLU of Texas, told us last week that across the country, legal problems with anti-encampment ordinances arise when a city criminalizes the act of sleeping in makeshift encampments, but shelters are already overburdened or at capacity. She added that anti-panhandling ordinances can run into First Amendment issues, since asking for money is protected speech — but the city seems to have strategically avoided this problem by criminalizing not the act of begging, but the act of just standing on the side of the road on a sidewalk.

Trigilio applauded the mayor's efforts to provide more temporary shelter beds, as well as the provisions in the anti-encampment ordinance that require police officers to offer homeless people social services or medical help if needed before police are allowed to arrest them. But overall, she said, this may not bar the city from any potential legal problems with how the ordinance may ultimately be enforced.

“I see some effort in the way the ordinance is drafted that officers are taking the first step to get people services. It's a great gesture, but it's just not enough,” Trigilio said. “If there's not enough beds for people to sleep in, it's unconstitutional for them to be punished for it.”

Residents of the Museum District and business owners downtown, who see the homeless on a regular basis, praised the city for the ordinances. One man told council members, “I think in the end it will be better for the homeless. We do feel sorry for them, but when there are residents and businesses downtown, they're affected. People come to the city as tourists, and we have to spend our taxpayer money making our city look the way it does in order to attract more people. This is the best thing that has come [out of City Council] in a long time.”

The ordinance goes into effect in 30 days.