Texas ACLU Sues Houston, Saying New Rules Criminalize Homelessness

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By Becky FogelMay 16, 2017 11:46 am

The Standard’s news roundup gives you a quick hit of interesting, sometimes irreverent, and breaking news stories from all over the state.

At the end of last week, city workers began dismantling homeless encampments in Houston.

A new ordinance banning camping in public areas had just taken effect, and Officer Sheldon Theragood, a member of the police department’s homeless outreach team, told Houston Public Media he had a clear mission.

“I try to calm them down,” he says. “I’ll be there and tell them: ‘Hey, it’s gonna be OK, but this is what we have to do, you know – this is what’s going on.”

But the ACLU of Texas didn’t like what was going on. And now the nonprofit has filed a lawsuit against the city on behalf of three homeless Houstonians.

“The lawsuit is against the City of Houston, concerning two new ordinances the city recently passed further criminalizing homelessness,” says ACLU of Texas staff attorney Trisha Trigilio.

She says the two ordinances they’re targeting – the new prohibition on camping in public, and another making panhandling illegal –  are a departure from other policies that take a more compassionate approach to reducing homelessness.

“To be clear, Mayor Turner announced a multi-point plan when he announced his intention to pass these two new ordinances, and some portions of the plan are really effective,” Trigilio says. “They’re compassionate, evidence-based solutions that seek things like additional funding for substance abuse treatment and expanded affordable housing options.”

But while Houston is working on longer-term solutions, Trigilio says there simply aren’t enough emergency shelter beds for Houston’s homeless population right now.

In fact, the complaint against the City of Houston clearly outlines some barriers people face when trying to get shelter. For example, people have to line up twice daily to see if there’s a space for them in the shelter. If there isn’t, they’re turned away – so, it’s not like homeless people even have a designated bed they can count on each night.

Trigilio says she’s seen regulations like this popping up in other Texas cities like Dallas, and elsewhere throughout the country.

“What we also see in cities across the country is that when courts assess the constitutionality of tactics like this – they say the constitution won’t let this stand,” Trigilio says. “You can’t criminalize an entire group of people just for being homeless.”

Yesterday, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said the city’s homeless initiatives aren’t meant to violate anyone’s constitutional rights, but to “balance the legitimate public health, safety, and welfare of all citizens in the public space.” (You can find Mayor Turner’s full response on his Facebook page.)

Members of the Texas House are scheduled to take up a bill that would prevent cities from restricting people from possessing a few chickens.

If passed, the bill would allow up to six chickens on residential properties.

The legislation from State Sen. Van Taylor (R- Plano) inspired a slew of chicken jokes when it was up for debate in the upper chamber last month, like a quip from fellow Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood) calling the proposal “egg-ceptional.”

The bill does allow cities to bar residents from owning roosters.