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Photo: Andrew Kragie
Residents who impede the use of a Houston roadway, or block a sidewalk or building entrance could be charged with a misdemeanor under an ordinance passed Wednesday by City Council.
The ordinance aimed at curbing panhandling was paired with a ban on unauthorized encampments in public places – an effort to crack down on homeless camps that have drawn resident and council member ire in recent months. The encampment ban is set to take effect in 30 days.
Mayor Sylvester Turner said he thinks the new rules help to achieve a “delicate balance” between ensuring safety and helping the homeless.
“The whole notion is to strike a balance between addressing their needs and their concerns and putting them in a better position in their lives, and at the same time the neighborhood concerns in terms of people being in their doorway or blocking the sidewalk,” Turner said.
City Council first considered the ordinances last month but delayed a vote after council members offered a slew of amendments to make the rules more restrictive.
The mayor’s office did not incorporate requests to modify the encampment ban, but it expanded the ordinance meant to deter panhandling to restrict activity on sidewalks and doorways, in addition to roadways.
The mayor, who has worried publicly about restricting free speech, said the law is meant to minimize congestion.
“We’re not penalizing speech,” he said. “We are saying your conduct cannot be such that you impede the traffic or the flow of people who have every right to utilize sidewalks, hike and bike trails and their doorways.”
Still, Tristia Bauman, a senior attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, warned of potential constitutional violations, also saying she thought the laws would be ineffective.
“This law as written is constitutionally concerning, and I think it’s very vulnerable to legal challenge,” she said of the encampment rules. “To create a punishment for people who are attempting to survive on the street when they have no alternative is a violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.”
Marc Eichenbaum, special assistant to the mayor for homeless initiatives, said the city has worked with groups like Star of Hope and the Salvation Army to ensure there are sufficient shelter beds for the city’s homeless.
“For individuals who want to go to a shelter, there is a place for them,” Eichenbaum said.
Bauman pointed to those with mental health issues or disabilities who may be unable to go to a shelter.
Turner’s plan to curb homelessness, announced last month, also includes proposals to house 500 chronically homeless people by early September and construct alternative, professionally staffed “low-level” shelters under highway overpasses or on private property.
These outdoor spaces are intended to help accommodate people who are unable or unwilling to go to an indoor shelter.
The mayor declined on Wednesday to specify the sites the city is considering and said he was not prepared to say when they would be operational. The city also has yet to release a cost estimate for the shelters.
As for the ordinance meant to address panhandling, Bauman zeroed in on the exception allowing city employees to solicit charitable contributions.
“The exception is what shows that it is not a content-neutral ordinance,” Bauman said.
The homeless population in Harris and Fort Bend counties was roughly 3,600, according to the Coalition for the Homeless, down 57 percent from 2011.
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