The City of Houston’s fight to criminalize homelessness in the name of public health and safety continued this week, with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner himself taking the stand to defend the city’s ordinance that bans homeless encampments.
The ordinance, which states people in Houston can’t have anything that resembles shelter in a public space, was temporarily halted in August when U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt, presiding over a class-action lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, ruled the ban violated the Eighth Amendment. You know, the one about cruel and unusual punishment?
The hearing on Tuesday, when Turner and other city officials testified in defense of the ordinance, gave the city a chance to appeal the temporary restraining order. Judge Hoyt’s decision on whether or not the order should remain in effect for the duration of the case won’t come for at least a week, and a trial over the entire ordinance will likely happen next year.
During Tuesday’s hearing, Turner said that two of the city’s biggest homeless camps have doubled in size and now that the temporary injunction on the city’s ordinance is in place, the city’s “hands are tied.”
“They now have total power,” he said, referring to the powerless people without homes who are apparently causing the people with homes to feel nervous when they walk past them and try to avoid eye contact. “They own the public sphere.”
Trisha Trigilio, Senior Staff Attorney for the ACLU of Texas, said that these types of statements, which essentially boil down to a blanket generalization about how dangerous and terrible the camps are, aren’t accurate or helpful.
“If you go out to the camp and talk to people, you’ll find there are a lot of different people at the camps,” Trigilio told FPH on Thursday. “There are a lot of different areas inside the camp, it’s not the terrifying place that it’s being portrayed to be. It’s people who are down on their luck and trying to make it. I don’t think there’s anything invidious about saying that I’m going to set up a tent with a few friends and build my own community because I can’t afford a home. There’s nothing inherently wrong about setting up a tent.”
The same goes for arguments like the one that the city’s Dr. David Persse made regarding public health in the camps. Peresse, the mayor’s director of emergency medical services and public health, said that at one point the camps contained “inches and feet” of feces on the ground.
“Witnesses getting into an argument about how much human waste is out there in the camps misses the point,” Trigilio said. “The city should be putting public toilets and hand washing stations out there instead of trying to build up evidence about how dangerous and dirty these places are. There are solutions that don’t involve bringing people to jail.”
And while the city sees their ordinance as a way to ask people to take down their tents and get them into shelter or risk arrest and paying $500 they almost certainly don’t have, Trigilio says on a practical level it just doesn’t work.
“We’d really challenge the idea that the city has done enough to offer people shelter at all,” she said. “There was a lot of discussion about policy and high level agreements between officials and CEOs, but what really matters is that people on the street can’t get into shelter. So no matter what these policies say, as a practical matter people can’t access shelter. And as a practical matter, the city hasn’t done a lot to balance the situation.”
Read the ACLU’s complaint here.