Photos by Mark Armes
The City of Houston is back at it again, and by again I mean finding new and inventive ways to criminalize the poor. We already run a debtor’s prison in Harris County, and now some new misguided ordinances recently passed by City Council are receiving quite a bit of attention, both locally and nationally. Under Annise Parker’s leadership in 2012, the city passed an ordinance that made it illegal to feed more than five people on public property without a permit. The 2012 feeding ordinance certainly had an impact on people experiencing homelessness, and last month the city stepped up their efforts by going after access to shelter and resources through two new ordinances.
Ordinance No. 2017-261 is the new ‘anti-encampment’ ordinance. The ordinance specifically states, “Encampment means any one or more of the following: (a) The unauthorized use of fabric, metal, cardboard, or other materials as a tent or other temporary structure for living accommodation purposes or human habitation; or (b) The unauthorized use of a heating device; or (c) The unauthorized accumulation of personal property (other than durable medical equipment) that would not fit in a container three feet high, three feet wide, and three feet deep.”
Did you catch all that? No longer are people in Houston allowed to have anything that resembles shelter. Not even cardboard, and certainly not tents. Also, any personal items that you would like to keep cannot be stored in a container that is anything bigger than 3’x3’x3′. And well, sorry, no grills or heaters allowed either. All three of these violations carry the risk of arrest and a fine of up to $500.
Ordinance No. 2017-256 is the new ‘anti-panhandling’ ordinance. Assuming you can’t technically criminalize asking people for money, the city decided instead to limit who has access to our roadways, sidewalks, and streets. What’s really telling about the ordinance is the exemption that allows city employees to solicit charitable contributions via, you guessed it, a roadway! Gotta make sure churches, fire departments and soccer moms can block those roads and take your money. Just don’t be poor and need to do that same thing! This ordinance paired with the Mayor Turner’s new campaign – Meaningful Change; Not Spare Change – will surely hurt the folks who panhandle to get by.
We understand that the city thinks they are helping. It’s obvious that these issues are not easily fixed. There are multiple organizations who are constantly trying to find resources and funding to meet the needs of folks living on the streets. They aren’t just dealing with homelessness, but all of the trauma that led to a person finding themselves without the ability to meet their basic needs. That isn’t exactly a situation that’s easy for anyone to navigate, but criminalizing folks who have limited access to basic things like food and shelter is not the answer. Part of the problem is that we consistently attempt to use law enforcement to fix issues they are not qualified to fix. Half of what makes up these ordinances is detailing what police are allowed to do when people do not comply. You cannot criminalize the poor or mentally ill and expect it to go away. We should demand better of our elected officials, and ourselves for that matter.
For real change to happen in society we have to start humanizing each other. Our values and beliefs are so misguided when it comes to understanding the trauma and marginalization that occurs to the majority of the population under capitalism. And the people who have the real resources to fix these issues that plague our society are the ones who benefit from this bootstraps mentality we so often hear and see. We should work on how we think and talk about the poor in this country, and also why we criminalized them. To truly deal with this issue we don’t just need funding, we need a culture shift; one that moves away from the tired trope that it’s the fault of the poor that they find themselves in such a situation. We are better than this. So try harder to be kind and stop believing what our wealthy overlords are dishing out. We live in the richest country in history, if only there was a way to rid our communities of homelessness and poverty. Oh, wait.
That said, one thing missing from the coverage around these new ordinances is the voices of the people who are most impacted by them. So we spent some time on a rainy Sunday afternoon under the US 59 overpass and listened to anyone willing to share their experience. In an effort to be more in line with our beliefs as a community paper we wanted to dedicate most of the space for this article to those stories, which we’ve compiled into a photo essay below. Out of respect for their privacy, we will only be printing first names.
I’m originally from Dallas, and most of my life was challenging, but I’ve done the best I could. At a young age I went to work at IHOP to help support and raise my younger siblings. I came to Houston a few years ago and was working on being a nurse, a goal I am still committed to. The cost of school was too much and then in a string of bad luck I was caught with a few joints. I spent my birthday in jail because I couldn’t afford bail. The judge sentenced me to probation and now I’m struggling because I can’t leave the county. The training I’ve received as a nurse would be really helpful to my sick grandmother in Dallas, but I can’t get up there to see her. I have never been interested in help or a handout. I just wish people would understand that we are human just like anyone else. And what the city is doing to us is inhumane.
I grew up in Corpus Christi and come from a military family. I have multiple relatives that have served in the Army, Coast Guards and Navy; a tradition I am committed to continuing. Currently I am enrolled at Houston Community College and am close to finishing my GED. After which I am hopeful I can enroll in basic training and work my way up to Sargent in the Army. It’s been extremely challenging being on the streets and working on my degree. My only ID that I have is my HCC one, and if I lose it I don’t have access to any other form of identification. I am working on getting a state ID, but accessing my birth certificate has been difficult. I appreciate what Operation ID is doing to try and help us, but it’s still a long process.
If the city really cared about what happens to us they would do things like bring us water. Instead they spend money to put up fences so we can’t access our tents. Just a few weeks ago I had some issues with the police when they stopped me for jaywalking. If they had taken me to jail like they were threatening it would have impacted my studies. I just hope they realize that sending me to jail isn’t going to help my situation. I am just going to continue to end up on the streets. I agree with Mikala, I am not looking for a handout. I am working on bettering my life, I just think the city should be more understanding of the struggles we face.
After fleeing an abusive partner in Ohio, I made my way to Houston. I’ve been on the streets for 6 years. I was recently diagnosed with terminal skin cancer and the tent that I live in is saving my life. I don’t think the city understands what they are doing to me and others when they take away our access to shelter and privacy.
I am working with the ACLU on a lawsuit against these new ordinances. Our lawsuit says the city is in violation of the 1st, 4th, 8th and 14th amendments. I am hopeful that the courts will rule in our favor. It is unreasonable to think that we can fit all of our belongings in a space as tiny as 3x3x3.
I am one of the lucky ones though, hopefully next week my paperwork will be finalized and I can move into an apartment. But that doesn’t mean I won’t keep fighting for the family and friends I have made along the way. No one deserves to be criminalized because they found themselves in hard times.
Patrick & Diamond
I think the city needs more homeless shelters. There just aren’t enough beds to cover everyone. They also don’t allow pets, so what am I suppose to do with Diamond? I want to give her a good life. Instead the cops just come by and give us warnings, telling us we have to clear out of here. But where are we supposed to go?
I had a good job driving an 18 wheeler and lived in a home off of Collingsworth, but in the last year I lost my job due to an injury I sustained that left me bed ridden with multiple dislocated discs in my back. On top of that, my landlord raised my rent by $250 and I couldn’t afford to stay. The area I was living in has seen a lot of development over the last few years, development that helped push me out. Right now I’m just trying to start over, and the aggression from the city isn’t helping. We need affordable housing, not new ordinances that criminalize people like me and keep us trapped in a system that we can never get out of. We are good people.
Darius & Renesha (Engaged)
Homa, Louisiana is where I was born, but I’ve been in Houston for awhile now. I would like to see the city have more activities to help with housing. I was kicked out of Covenant House five years ago and am still not allowed back. I have tried to get access to identification, but working with Operation ID is a slow process, especially when you have to get a birth certificate from out of state. Having Renesha by my side helps keep me sane. I agree, part of the problem with shelters is that we can’t stay together, and they often times aren’t safe. I would rather be able to be near her and know we can help protect each other.
I’m a native Texan who grew up in Beaumont. I graduated from Westbrook High School in 2002. After high school I attended Prairieville University where I studied music, but my abusive husband made it difficult for me to continue my studies. I took my babies and left. My children now live with their grandmother while I am trying to get back on my feet. I am very disappointed that the city is criminalizing me. I wish they would stop taking us to jail or mental institutions to hide us from the public. We are human beings, not criminals. They want us to stay in shelters, but I have found them unsafe and prefer to take my chances on the street. Also, I don’t want to be split up from my fiancé, Darius.
I would love to have access to an apartment, but I am worried about the strings attached to accepting help from the same city who is trying to criminalize me. I’m a grown woman, and want to be treated as such. A few rules are understandable, but I just think they are going to try and control my life and that isn’t something I can deal with.