TENT CITY WOES

HOUS­TON MUST TRY SHEL­TER REME­DIES THAT WORK IN OTHER CITIES

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - OUTLOOK - By Terri Burke

TWO short months ago, our city suf­fered one of the most dev­as­tat­ing nat­u­ral dis­as­ters in its 180-year history. But the calami­ties Hur­ri­cane Har­vey rained down upon us are the same as those home­less Hous­to­ni­ans face ev­ery sin­gle day. And they are no less de­serv­ing of our em­pa­thy, cre­ativ­ity and re­sources than are the vic­tims of Har­vey’s floods.

Ev­ery­one agrees that the con­di­tions in home­less en­camp­ments are no way for any­one to live. Mayor Sylvester Turner, his pre­de­ces­sor An­nise Parker and the Hous­ton City Coun­cil have taken com­pas­sion­ate and ef­fec­tive steps to­ward hous­ing peo­ple in en­camp­ments. In fact, we have be­come na­tional lead­ers in end­ing home­less­ness, bring­ing our vet­eran home­less­ness rate to a func­tional zero and re­duc­ing the over­all home­less pop­u­la­tion by half.

Even so, our shel­ters for the home­less are full beyond ca­pac­ity. Peo­ple are liv­ing in en­camp­ments be­cause they have nowhere else to go. In­stead of treat­ing en­camp­ment res­i­dents with dig­nity, Hous­ton has made it a crime to live in tents, which is nei­ther com­pas­sion­ate nor ef­fec­tive. This law does not ad­dress the root causes of home­less­ness or re­duce it, but rather dis­places home­less Hous­to­ni­ans by dis­cour­ag­ing them from re­main­ing in any one place for too long.

Crim­i­nal­iz­ing tents ef­fec­tively crim­i­nal­izes home­less­ness it­self — which is un­con­sti­tu­tional. So en­camp­ment res­i­dents sued. And last Au­gust, they won an in­junc­tion in fed­eral court that pre­vents law en­force­ment from cit­ing or ar­rest­ing any­one just for us­ing a tent.

Since that in­junc­tion went into ef­fect, Mayor Turner has used ev­ery sen­sa­tion­al­ized press con­fer­ence and Face­book Live ap­pear­ance to hold the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union and our clients re­spon­si­ble for the un­san­i­tary con­di­tions and crimes in the mid­town and down­town en­camp­ments, while giv­ing short shrift to other, equally se­ri­ous crimes where con­ve­nient scape­goats are in shorter sup­ply. In his court tes­ti­mony and pub­lic re­marks, the mayor sug­gests that since he is no longer per­mit­ted to ar­rest his way out of the prob­lem, his hands are tied.

Of course, any crimes com­mit­ted in the en­camp­ments should be in­ves­ti­gated, and those com­mit­ting them should be held re­spon­si­ble. Nev­er­the­less, nei­ther our

Tents dot a home­less en­camp­ment near down­town Hous­ton. Mayor Sylvester Turner says such en­camp­ments are be­com­ing a pub­lic safety and health is­sue. Juan A. Lozano / As­so­ci­ated Press

clients nor the tents they live in are the source or the cause of vi­o­lent crime on Hous­ton’s city streets.

The un­san­i­tary con­di­tions are not cre­ated by the tents, but be­cause Hous­ton’s home­less have nowhere else to go. Even the mayor has con­ceded on nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions that our home­less would not run afoul of the or­di­nances for merely sleep­ing on pub­lic prop­erty, but rather for do­ing so in a tent. Fol­low­ing that logic, it ap­pears the City ap­proves of the home­less liv­ing on our streets, so long as they don’t get too com­fort­able.

Pub­lic health prob­lems re­quire pub­lic health so­lu­tions, not crim­i­nal­iza­tion. To the mayor’s ques­tion as to what the ACLU is try­ing to achieve in its de­fense of Hous­ton’s home­less, we an­swer: The city has not even be­gun to ex­haust po­ten­tial reme­dies for this cri­sis.

Other cities have de­vel­oped in­no­va­tive so­lu­tions for the very prob­lem Hous­ton is fac­ing today. San Fran­cisco’s Nav­i­ga­tion Cen­ter, for ex­am­ple, per­mits mixed-gen­der sleep­ing ar­range­ments for home­less cou­ples, does not pro­hibit en­try of peo­ple with pets, pro­vides stor­age for be­long­ings and does not re­quire so­bri­ety or par­tic­i­pa­tion in re­li­gious ser­vices of its clients.

There is no par­tic­u­lar mystery to end­ing home­less­ness. Hous­ing ends home­less­ness and, thus far, the city of Hous­ton has pro­vided no new fa­cil­i­ties to ad­dress the prob­lem.

As the mayor said when he an­nounced the or­di­nance, the city can­not tell its home­less that they can­not be in a par­tic­u­lar place if it can­not pro­vide them with some­where else to go. To which we would add, nor can it pun­ish peo­ple for shel­ter­ing them­selves on the street in the mean­time.

Surely a city with the demon­strated met­tle to weather a dis­as­ter as de­struc­tive as Har­vey can tackle its home­less­ness prob­lem with­out hav­ing to create a new cat­e­gory of crim­i­nal whose only crime is want­ing to shel­ter where they can; to create a new cat­e­gory of crim­i­nal who has no place in the Har­ris County jail; to create a new cat­e­gory of crim­i­nal by ini­ti­at­ing cruel and un­con­sti­tu­tional mea­sures like ar­rests and in­car­cer­a­tion.

No one, in­clud­ing the ACLU and its clients, wants peo­ple to live in en­camp­ments or in the street. The only ques­tion is how we go about solv­ing that prob­lem col­lec­tively, ef­fec­tively and hu­manely.

If we re­spond to this cri­sis with even a frac­tion of the en­ergy, ur­gency and com­pas­sion we brought to Har­vey’s vic­tims, we could find so­lu­tions that pro­tect both the rights and dig­nity of the poor­est and most vul­ner­a­ble among us.

God­ofredo A. Vasquez / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Mayor Sylvester Turner ad­dresses the me­dia last week at a home­less en­camp­ment un­der the U.S. 59 bridge, where a string of vi­o­lent in­ci­dents has oc­curred re­cently.

God­ofredo A. Vasquez / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Two peo­ple have been shot and killed over the past three weeks at a home­less en­camp­ment lo­cated off Caro­line un­der U.S. 59. Mayor Sylvester Turner holds the ACLU and its clients re­spon­si­ble for the crime and con­di­tions at the camps.

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