HOUSTON (CN) – A new Houston law that bans camping in public and forces campers to discard all their possessions that don’t fit in a small box unconstitutionally targets those living on the streets, three homeless people clam in a federal class action.
Lead plaintiff Tammy Kohr lives in a tent in a Houston homeless camp.
Already stressed by her recent cancer diagnosis, Kohr says in the class-action lawsuit filed Friday in Houston federal court that the city’s new law threatens her most prized possession: her dignity.
“Having a tent is important to protect her from the weather, insects, and other pests. She also uses her tent to get dressed in the morning and to keep her possessions safe. She likes having a tent to have privacy from other people,” the complaint states.
Kohr says she is going through her stuff and deciding what to keep because a new law that prohibits encampments – which went into effect May 12 – bans setting up tents or keeping too much property in public spaces.
“She is worried about losing her clothes, her mattress, and her cooler that she uses to keep drinks and meat cold. She does not know what will happen to her kitten. Most importantly, she is worried about losing her bike, which she and her boyfriend use to travel to job interviews,” the lawsuit states.
Kohr and two other plaintiffs sued the city of Houston, claiming its new law “effectively criminalizes homelessness.”
A Houston Police Department spokesman said Monday he couldn’t comment on the lawsuit, but he did provide a memo HPD issued on Friday that advises its officers how to enforce the encampment ordinance.
“Things to remember about ‘keeping too much property’ in a public place: Under the law, property that would not fit in a container 3 feet high, 3 feet wide and 3 feet deep is too much and is illegal. Most medical equipment is not subject to this law,” the memo states.
Though people found in violation of the public-camping ban can be arrested and fined up to $500, HPD stresses in the memo that its officers can’t arrest or ticket anyone unless they’ve been offered a bed at a homeless shelter and declined or not responded to that offer.
The Houston City Council passed the ordinance in April, the same day it approved a law against panhandling that carries the same penalties.
The panhandling ban prohibits people from blocking traffic to solicit donations and from soliciting donations within 8 feet of an ATM, parking meter, gas pump or sidewalk café or 8 feet of any person who “gives an ‘imperative instruction, whether verbal or non-verbal,’ telling the speaker to stop,” according to the lawsuit.
Kohr says she used to panhandle with signs by ATMs and gas stations and would step into the street to accept money from people in their cars, but claims she’s been harassed by Houston police so much that she stopped.
“Tammy isn’t voluntarily in public: she cannot access an emergency shelter bed. She has tried calling and waiting in line, but the shelters are always full,” the lawsuit states.
The Star of Hope runs a 320-bed men’s shelter and a 274-bed shelter for single women, mothers and children in Houston.
Star of Hope’s public relations director Scott Arthur confirmed in an interview Monday the lawsuit’s claims that those shelters are overcapacity, and once they run out of beds the staff finds room for people to sleep on the floor.
He said Star of Hope staff members are out at Houston’s homeless camps every day offering people shelter, but only a few have been motivated by the city’s encampment ordinance to take the nonprofit up on its offer.
“We would make room for folks who are under the bridges and things like that. If they want shelter, we will make sure that they have shelter,” Arthur said.
He said he’s not sure exactly how much personal property people can take into Star of Hope shelters.
“It’s pretty minimal because we have to have storage space for all these people,” Arthur said.
According to the lawsuit, all of Houston’s emergency homeless shelters are infested with bedbugs and people who sleep on the floor in them come out covered with bites.
Eugene Stroman, another plaintiff in the class action, lives with his wife in a Houston homeless camp and makes a few bucks repairing bikes with spare parts he keeps next to his tent.
Stroman says he’s most worried about losing his bike because he suffers from heart failure and is too weak to walk around town. He also has had trouble getting a bed in Houston’s overbooked shelters, the complaint states, and he’s not likely to recommend them to anyone.
“Gene once got an overflow spot in a shelter. He had to sleep on a mat on the floor in the kitchen, where he was bothered so much by the rats that he had to feed them in order to get them to leave him alone. His eyeglasses were stolen. He was harassed by the staff because he is not Christian, and staff members would tell him that he was going to hell,” the lawsuit states.
Stroman says in the lawsuit that if he did get a bed at Star of Hope, he would have to spend the night away from his wife because the nonprofit has a policy of separating heterosexual couples, even married couples with children, and sending the men to one shelter, the women and children to another.
Arthur, the Star of Hope spokesman, said the shelter splits up families at night so it can prioritize care for women and children.
“So if a family does come in, we will absolutely accept them and give them shelter but we would have to split them up during the night time. They can get together during the day if they like, but at night they’ll go their separate ways. And that’s not just Star of Hope, that’s at most shelters,” he said.
Robert Colton, the third and final named plaintiff, is a homeless military veteran who carries a sign at street corners that says, “Homeless vet needs help with food, clothes, $, anything helps,” according to the complaint.
Kohr, Stroman and Colton seek an injunction to stop the city from enforcing the tent and panhandling bans and from taking homeless people’s belongings.
They claim the city laws violate the First, Fourth, Eighth and 14th Amendments. They are represented by Trisha Trigilio with the American Civil Liberties Union in Houston.
Houston did not respond Monday to a request for comment on the lawsuit.
The city’s homeless population has dropped from 8,500 to 3,600 since 2011, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a March 2 press release.
Turner, who took office in January 2016, touts his “holistic” approach to homelessness that seeks to get people into permanent housing by addressing the mental health and drug issues that often keep them on the streets.
The mayor says the new laws try to balance the needs of homeless people against the concerns of the neighborhoods they impact.