To Mayor Sylvester Turner, unsheltered homeless people who live outside rather than in shelters are like some people in our families who just need a "gentle nudge" in the right direction. Some tough love.
And to Mayor Turner, the city's anti-encampment and anti-panhandling ordinances are the gentle nudges—ordinances that make it a Class C misdemeanor to sleep in a tent, box, any makeshift structure; to have a grill; to have belongings that can't fit in a container three feet deep, wide and long; to ask for money within eight feet of someone in various public spaces; to block sidewalks, medians or doorways. Violating either ordinance is punishable by up to a $500 fine.
"There does come a point when you have to gently nudge people from where they are to a better place in their lives," he said. "And if you take that away, then what ends up happening is people simply stay where they are. And the number grows."
The ACLU of Texas, however, has claimed in a federal lawsuit against the city that these nudges violate homeless people's constitutional rights by "effectively criminalizing homelessness." The civil rights organization claims that, since Houston's shelters are incapable of accommodating all of the homeless, that banning the homeless from trying to protect themselves from the elements amounts to cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. And banning them from standing on the sidewalk to ask for spare change violates the First Amendment's freedom of speech, the ACLU claims.
Mayor Turner called a late afternoon press conference Monday to say he respectfully disagreed with the ACLU's assessment of the ordinances and said he interpreted the lawsuit as the ACLU asking him to "do nothing" about homelessness. He conflated the lawsuit's targeting of the ordinances with instead targeting his entire approach to trying to end homelessness in Houston, a six-point holistic plan that includes ambitious goals such as housing 500 chronically homeless people by September and providing more shelter beds at a new facility on Reed Road.
The city's homeless housing efforts have in fact been widely successful over the past several years, with more than 8,000 homeless people helped since 2012. But apparently, now, to continue these efforts, banning homeless people's current survival tools is supposed to cajole them into accepting the services. Turner said no one is being "forced" to accept them. Police will not be running around confiscating their things with a heavy hand. And they can still sleep on the ground where they are. Cardboard is fine. Mattresses and tents, however, are a public health pr
oblem, he said.
"The city's initiatives are not intended to adversely affect anyone's constitutional rights," Turner said, "but rather to balance the legitimate public health and welfare of all citizens in the public space. We should all agree that one person living on the streets is one too many, and the critical question is how do we transition people from being on the streets to a better place in their lives? There are some who would have us do nothing—and based on my reading of the lawsuit filed by ACLU, they would ask us to do nothing."
Asked to elaborate on how, he said: "They're saying you cannot remove tents, you cannot remove sofas and beds, you cannot remove any items associated with the people out there. They are literally saying the city cannot do anything. And if that is their position, then essentially you are tying our hands from doing anything other than saying we will provide housing."
In fact, if there is anything the ACLU wants the City of Houston to do, that is exactly it. The ACLU did in fact applaud Mayor Turner's housing efforts in a statement; it simply asked that the city not also threaten people with a crime and squash their dignity in the process of helping them.
“In recent years, Houston has admirably managed to reduce homelessness by half by pursuing sensible and compassionate solutions to this nationwide crisis,” said Trisha Trigilio, staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas. “But these latest ordinances abandon that humane approach. The City says they’re meant to get people into shelters with ‘tough love,’ but the truth is the shelters are full and Houston’s homeless have nowhere else to go.”
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For many homeless people under U.S. 59, the combination of the city's big push to help them find housing and the recent ordinances has been conflicting. The city says it wants to help them, pull them back up on their feet. But then the city says that most aspects of their daily lives—sleeping in tents, cooking their own food, having a mattress, having too many things—are against the law. "They're trying to make it illegal to be homeless," one man told us.
Many don't want to go to the shelters because they must often wait for hours in line just to secure spot. And sometimes that spot just means sleeping on a mat on the floor, as the ACLU notes in its lawsuit.
Asked whether this is an acceptable option, Turner said no, but that the city is doing everything it can to provide more options.
"Let me just be very clear. This is hard," he said in closing. "It is hard. And trying to address it, we have to reach a delicate balance. One thing I do know, to do nothing is not the answer."