Friday marked the first day the city's anti-encampment ordinance went into effect—but strolling around the U.S. 59 underpass, you wouldn't know it. Tents still remained pitched. Neighbors gathered around a grill cooking chicken, in plain sight of police. Others lounged on couches shooting the breeze.
The people who live here are hoping to make it last as long as they can, knowing that hanging onto these small luxuries might eventually result in a citation and possibly even arrest. Last month, Houston City Council voted to make it illegal to sleep in tents, to use any type of heating device (i.e., a grill), and to own belongings that can't fit in a container three feet wide, three feet long and three feet tall. Violating the ordinance is punishable by a fine of up to $500.
At this point, some of the residents say they they are willing to risk getting arrested rather than get rid of their homes and their things.
“They're trying to make it illegal to be homeless in Houston," said a man named Trampus Edwards. "The only stuff we can keep is if we can carry it. They're robbing us.”
Police came through Friday, as they have done every Friday for the past month, and explained to everyone again how this is going to work: Police will first issue a warning to anyone in violation of the ordinance and still living in tents, but will also offer them social services help and shelter at Star of Hope or Salvation Army—two shelters that Marilyn Brown, CEO of Coalition for the Homeless, said have promised to do whatever it takes to accommodate people who lose their tents. The shelters in Harris County, Fort Bend County and Montgomery County, she said, are generally at 87 percent capacity on any given night.
“We know that any time anything displaces or changes things for our homeless folks, there's a measure of uncomfortableness and unsettling,” Brown said. “The shelters will respond to do the best they can, whether that means extra space on the floor or extra cots.”
As the city has long known, however, not everybody wants to go live in a shelter, whether because they don't like having to live according to someone else's rules, don't like the living arrangements or don't feel they can take large belongings with them. In any case, those who choose to ignore police's warnings to pack up camp or downsize their belongings will be cited and charged with Class C misdemeanors, punishable by up to a $500 fine.
HPD spokesman Victor Senties said that, in the event that someone is arrested, police will allow him or her to take a three-by-three-by-three container of belongings, which police will store for safekeeping and return later. Anything left behind, Senties said, will not necessarily be confiscated by police—but every week police and Solid Waste do a clean-up at U.S. 59, and unattended belongings are usually thrown away.
Senties said that mattresses do count as a violation of the ordinance, which the majority of people were sleeping on under U.S. 59. The city has said people can still sleep on the ground on cardboard—although most homeless people find that alternative insulting.
“We can't be in tents. We can't cook food. We can't have too many belongings. What are we gonna do?” said a man known as Big, who said he used to be a real estate agent and county employee before falling on hard times. “If we're gonna sleep on the ground outside, we can't get a job. That's what upsets me. People are gonna end up in jail, and you can't do a damn thing if you're in jail.”
Mayor Turner unveiled the anti-encampment ordinance earlier this year at the same time he unveiled big plans to provide more shelter beds, contstruct temporary outdoor shelters (locations have not yet been chosen) and get more homeless people permanent housing. Houston's homeless housing efforts have been largely successful over the past several years, as the city managed to reduce homelessness by 57 percent since 2012. More than 8,000 homeless people have gotten into apartments during that time. In March, Turner said the goal was to house an additional 500 chronically homeless people by September.
But now those housing plans are in jeopardy—and the timing of the anti-encampment ordinance could not have been worse.
In April, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development directed the Houston Housing Authority to freeze its voucher program due to a budget shortfall, leaving hundreds of people on the waiting list out of luck. This included Spencer Stevens and his girlfriend, Fatima Dorsey, who have been homeless for more than a year but bought a tent in January after it dipped down to 20 degrees and they got cold. They had just received the voucher around the time the freeze was ordered, and so they ended up losing it. After learning of their story, Dorsey said Mayor Turner visited them and pulled some strings to get them their housing set up—but not everyone will be quite so lucky.
Marilyn Brown said meeting Mayor Turner's goal to house 500 homeless people by September will be nearly impossible. HUD's voucher freeze is causing homeless housing funding to be cut by around 60 percent, between $2.1 to $2.4 million, she said, which may lead to roughly 300 fewer homeless people being housed.
At this point, Brown said, homeless advocates and organizations would even be open to private donations from charitable Houstonians in order to still try to meet Turner's goal.
“It's unfortunate that we lost 60 percent of our housing capability about a week before the ordinance went into effect,” Brown said. “One had nothing to do with the other. But now, everyone including the city is continuing to seek alternate ways to see if there's any way to fund that gap.”
The city told the Houston Press Friday that police have not yet begun issuing warnings or citations to the folks under U.S. 59, and that police will not be doing any sort of “sweep” and confiscating everyone's things.
Toward the back of the encampment, which goes on for multiple blocks beneath the highway, Vernon Spivey is skeptical. To avoid any sort of punishment, Spivey said he has tried to keep the place as neat as possible—and in fact while he talks inside his tent, a friend from the tent next door is sweeping the rugs and around the fire pit outside. “Everything [the city] has complained about," he said, "I've tried to clean it all. Why doesn't the City of Houston just give us a job to clean up our own stuff?”
His encampment is as neat as it gets. Inside his tent is a small couch and a twin-size mattress, buttressed by a box mattress. The bed is made neatly, and a teddy bear rests against the pillow.
He calls it his home, and he is not willing to throw it away.
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