HOUSTON (CN) – A Houston ordinance that bars homeless people from sleeping in tents on public property may violate their rights against cruel and unusual punishment, a federal judge ruled Tuesday, blocking the law with a temporary restraining order.
Though people found in violation of the public-camping ban can be arrested and fined up to $500, Houston police have issued only 20 citations since the law took effect in May.
HPD has advised its officers not to arrest or ticket anyone unless they’ve been offered a bed at a homeless shelter and declined or not responded to that offer.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal class action the day after the ordinance went on the books, claiming the law unconstitutionally targets the homeless.
The law prohibits homeless people from setting up tents or temporary shelters in public places, from using camp stoves or grills, and from keeping more personal property than could fit in a container 3 feet high, 3 feet wide and 3 feet deep, though most medical equipment is exempt.
HPD officers recently cited several people living in a camp under a highway overpass near downtown, called the Wheeler encampment, warning them that they could be ticketed and arrested if they don’t stop camping there, which moved the ACLU to file an emergency motion for a temporary restraining order on Aug. 17.
U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt sided with the ACLU on Tuesday and temporarily blocked the ordinance.
“Criminalizing the status of an individual has long been prohibited by the Constitution. Simply because the behavior of a person is considered undesirable, yet harmless, does not license the government to criminalize and/or punish such behavior,” he wrote.
Marc Eichenbaum is Houston’s point man for its homeless outreach programs. He said in an affidavit that through collaboration with more than 100 organizations, Houston has housed more than 11,000 homeless people in less than six years.
“One of the plaintiffs in this lawsuit, Eugene Stroman signed a lease to his apartment a little over a week ago. The city’s goal is to try to help as many of the homeless people of Houston to get off the dirt and under a roof—to find housing,” Eichenbaum said in the Aug. 18 affidavit.
Stroman is one of three lead plaintiffs. He was living with his wife in a Houston homeless camp in May and making a few bucks repairing bikes with spare parts he kept next to his tent, according to the class action.
Eichenbaum said the city has spent thousands of dollars cleaning up the Wheeler encampment and another camp under the same freeway near the Houston Astros’ Minute Maid Park, and has collected 16 tons of “waste” at the sites.
“As there is no running water or toilet facilities in this area, the homeless use buckets and sometime defecate in these areas,” his filing states.
Eichenbaum emphasized the ban is focused on homeless people living in tents because trash accumulates and attracts rats in their encampments.
“The ordinance does not prohibit people from sleeping on the streets. It does not prohibit people from having blankets or sleeping bags to shelter themselves from the elements,” his affidavit states.
Eichenbaum said the city has even offered to store people’s things, without charge, while they stay in shelters, which only let people bring in a minimal amount of personal property due to a lack of space.
The Star of Hope runs a 320-bed men’s shelter and a 274-bed shelter for single women, mothers and children in Houston. Its public relations director Scott Arthur said its shelters have been full for the last two years with people sometimes sleeping on the floor.
Founded by a Baptist minister in 1907, the Star of Hope welcome homeless people who have never been to their shelters at all hours, Arthur said, but it enforces a strict schedule for returnees.
“If they’ve been in our shelter they know that we do have a schedule where they have to be in the shelters by 1 p.m. in the afternoon, they have to get a bed ticket around 8 a.m., they know the process,” he said an interview.
The Salvation Army runs three homeless shelters in Houston: A men’s shelter that can house 136 men, a women’s shelter that accepts 20 women each day starting at 3 p.m. on a first-come first-serve basis, and a family shelter that puts families in rooms, none of which are available right now.
The Salvation Army doesn’t let people sleep on the floor in its Houston shelters, its employees said.
The Star of Hope and Salvation Army confirmed on Wednesday the ACLU’s claims that their five Houston emergency shelters are usually full, leaving some with no choice but to sleep on the streets.
Judge Hoyt said in his order that an injunction is needed to stop the city from ticketing people just because they are homeless.
“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,’” he wrote in the five-page order.
Stroman called the injunction “a good thing” in a statement released Tuesday by the ACLU.
“We’re not hurting anybody. 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,” he said.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said the city is disappointed with the temporary injunction, but hopeful Hoyt will recognize that the ordinance is in the city’s best interest.
“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,” he said in a statement.