Unlike cities such as Sacramento and Seattle, Houston has seen a steady decrease in its homeless population for years. However, complaints from residents and City Council about tent encampments and panhandling have been on the rise in recent months. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced a plan Thursday that he says will help curb both of these issues, as well as house 500 chronically homeless people within the next six months, the Houston Chronicle reports.
“It is simply not acceptable for people to live on the streets. It is not good for them, and it is not good for our city,” Turner said. “This is a complicated issue that we will tackle humanely with a meaningful approach that balances the needs of the homeless and the concerns of neighborhoods that they impact.”
Turner’s initiative features an anti-panhandling awareness campaign and ordinances that would ban tents on public property and make it a Class C misdemeanor to obstruct city streets. Turner expects to bring the ordinances to City Council this month. The mayor’s also negotiating an agreement with the Texas DOT to allow parking and “other business ventures” in underpasses where people often camp.
To help make up for the loss of these spaces to the homeless, professionally staffed “low-level shelters” where people could sleep on mats in a fenced-in area with a roof will be set up under some overpasses and on private property. Nonprofit Star of Hope also plans to add 215 beds by August with the help of $800,000 in funding from the city. The initiative also includes mental health and substance abuse treatment.
“We don’t want to go to Midtown and tell folk ‘go’ without at least having another place where we can direct them to,” Turner told the Chronicle. “I think it’s important for people who are saying ‘we don’t want them here’ to join in with us in helping to identify acceptable locations.”
Ordinances like the ones Turner is presenting to City Council are controversial with civil liberties groups that say bans on camping criminalize trying to survive without a home, and that asking for money is a form of free speech. Megan Hustings, interim director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, criticized the plan’s ban on tents on public property and its anti-panhandling focus.
“You are outlawing sleeping when you outlaw tents,” Hustings told the Chronicle. “You can’t separate the two. You have to understand that people are going to have a structure. Shelter is a basic human need.”
A 2014 report from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty found an increase of citywide bans aimed at preventing homeless people from living in public view. From the report:
“The nature of criminalization is changing and … cities are moving toward prohibiting unavoidable, life sustaining activities throughout entire communities rather than in specific areas, effectively criminalizing a homeless person’s very existence.”
The homeless population in Harris and Fort Bend counties fell 57 percent between 2011 and 2016 to roughly 3,600, according to the Coalition for the Homeless. In 2016, the city used its HUD-mandated homeless count to conduct in-depth surveys with individuals and get particularly vulnerable individuals on waiting lists for housing. The city now has less than one homeless person per 1,000 residents, the lowest homelessness rate of the nation’s 10 largest metro areas, according to federal data.
Kelsey E. Thomas is Next City’s associate editor.