A Dispatch from the Streets of Houston

We got a call yesterday from a homeless fellow named Satch who asked us for advice on how to stage a protest against the City of Houston. Satch figures his First Amendment rights are being violated every time a cop tells him to move along when he’s trying to get along. So we placed a call on his behalf and found out he doesn’t need a permit so long as he doesn’t plan on blocking traffic or using amplified sound. Satch doesn’t plan on either, so you can expect to see a band a homeless protesters marching downtown any day now, if Satch is to be believed. We’ll definitely keep you updated on that. For now, here's a little missive Satch wrote this morning while at the VA hospital. –

Keith Plocek

The homeless of Houston are, like the homeless in any other city, evident everywhere. They can be seen on the corner of busy intersections proclaiming their poverty and need with the improvised signs they display clutched in grimy hands. They are under the bridges, trudging down our streets, bent under the heavy load of all they own in the world packed and bagged to be carried with them wherever they go.

For each homeless person there is a story. The details vary, but the pattern is that of a downward spiral that drops them without dignity or ceremony onto the streets of the nation’s cities. Houston streets, underpasses, bridges, parks and sidewalks are home to those on the bottom rung of Houston’s economic ladder and we all see them everywhere we go.

Our Mayor has been very active and vocal in his efforts of erase the homeless pox from the face of our city. Rather than come up with any real solution(s) to the problem, he has set the police force out to move them from the corners where they hold their signs proclaiming their needs, their hunger, or their need for a beer. Shoving them from one place only forces them to another. They are often warned, ticketed, and, yes, sometimes jailed for soliciting in public, for failing to move off “their” corner at the orders of a police officer.

The real problem is that once a person finds him/herself homeless, finding a job becomes a truly daunting task. They have no address, no phone number, and no way to be contacted after the submission of a job application. They are unable to bathe and maintain acceptable levels of personal hygiene, so the odds of being selected for a job following an interview are pretty slim anyway. It follows that for even those with the best intentions, motivation, education, and job skills, finding employment after finding themselves on the streets is, at best, very difficult.

It may be that our Mayor has the best of intentions in his attempts to force the homeless off the street corners and curtail their begging. However, what should be remembered by the Mayor and others in city hall is that the Constitution of the United States has something called the First Amendment. That means that the homeless, sad to say, Mr. Mayor, that means the homeless have the same protections for freedom of speech and expression as all the rest of America. As little as one may like the sight of the homeless on the corners begging, they are exercising their right to do so under the First Amendment.

Not being the brightest bulb on the tree, and certainly not being an attorney, it is only my modest opinion that directing the police to harass the homeless and intimidate them from their exercise of rights secured by the Constitution of the United States is actionable under the 1964 Civil Rights Act (codified as 42 U.S.C. sec. 1983). Houston has a city charter granted by the State of Texas, and it is, therefore, axiomatic that you and the police who follow your directives in violating the First Amendments of the homeless of Houston are acting “under color of State law” which will allow the homeless to file a suit for relief in the federal courts. That can be a very expensive proposition for the City of Houston. Even if the homeless cannot find counsel to represent them in court, sooner or later, someone who is aware that an indigent may file as a pauper and not be required to pay the costs of a suit, that he/she can access the courts and represent him/herself, that the federal courts are the proper vehicle for the suit and have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. sec.1343, and that declaratory and injunctive relief are authorized un 28 U.S.C. secs. 2201 and 2202.

I would think the Mayor would get behind an effort to solve the homeless problem and do something that has a real and lasting impact that provides these people a means of getting out of their situation. That will be a whole lot cheaper than fighting a losing battle in the courts which the city cannot win since the federal courts have pretty much held the First Amendment to be sacrosanct.

The homeless have the same rights as all the rest of us…it’s time city hall realizes that.

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