A temporary restraining order has been issued against the City of Houston as part of an ongoing lawsuit challenging two city ordinances from earlier this year (Ordinance No. 2017-261 & Ordinance No. 2017-256) that target the city’s homeless population.
The ruling, issued by U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt, temporarily prevents City of Houston law enforcement officers from citing or arresting anyone for using a tent on public property.
Ordinance No. 2017-261, the anti-encampment ordinance directly affected by the restraining order, 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.”
The City has explained the ordinances as being necessary to encourage local homeless individuals to find safe accommodations in area shelters. However, others have argued that the ordinances are simply an attempt by the City to criminalize homelessness.
According to Section IV.B of the restraining order:
“The plaintiffs have demonstrated that they are subject to a credible threat of being arrested, booked, prosecuted and jailed for violating the City of Houston’s ban on sheltering in public. The evidence is conclusive that they are involuntarily in public, harmlessly attempting to shelter themselves—an act they cannot realistically forgo, and that is integral to their status as unsheltered homeless individuals. Enforcement of the City’s ban against the plaintiffs may, therefore, cause them irreparable harm by violating their Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment due to their status of “homelessness.” Robinson, 370 U.S. at 666–67. Moreover, there is no evidence that the City will suffer harm if a restraining order were issued, thereby, preserving the status quo that existed prior to the issuance of citations.”
“We’re delighted the court recognized that homelessness is not and should not be a crime,” said Trisha Trigilio, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas, in an ACLU press release on the matter. “Seeking shelter is not only a right; it’s also a fundamental human necessity. We call on the City to stop enforcing ordinances that criminalize such a basic human need and seek more compassionate and effective methods for solving Houston’s homelessness problem.”
“This injunction is a good thing; we’re not hurting anybody,” said Eugene Stroman, a local homeless man who is one of the case’s plaintiffs, in the release. “We’re just out here trying to survive without being harassed by the police. You shouldn’t be able to arrest someone for being somewhere when they have no place else to go.”
Mayor Sylvester Turner released the following statement on the matter:
“The city of Houston is disappointed in the order released today. The intent of the ordinance is to take our most vulnerable Houstonians from the streets and place them in permanent supportive housing. I think we can all agree that no one deserves to live in an environment that has been deemed a public health hazard. It is our hope that the court will ultimately conclude that the city of Houston has the right to manage public space by regulating what can be erected there, especially when items impede on the space and pose risks. We will continue to work to find affordable housing options for our neighbors in need.”
Free Press Houston recently interviewed some members of the local homeless population about what it is like being homeless in the city of Houston and what they thought about the City’s new ordinances. You can read their stories here.