Attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas are requesting a federal judge extend his temporary order to block a Houston city ordinance targeting growing encampments created by the city’s homeless until a trial can test the merits of the case.
In his testimony Tuesday on the impact of the judge’s order put into place just days before Hurricane Harvey struck Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner said the camps have doubled in size and continue to put the public’s health and safety at risk.
“Our hands are tied. They now have total power. They own the public space,” Turner said, pointing to the homeless who are enabled to build tent cities in public spaces.
The encampment beneath U.S. Highway 59 and Wheeler Avenue has made some residents afraid of walking through public areas. There have been reports of shootings, stabbings, public urination and defecation.
According to Turner’s testimony, the main camping areas where populations have increased are near Minute Maid Park and the old Sears store in Midtown. He says many in the encampments aren’t interested in working with the alternatives the city is offering.
The ordinance went into effect in May, and allowed for the dismantling of homeless encampments and the arrest of individuals camping out in areas such as parks, freeway overpasses and other public spaces.
Shortly after the law was passed, ACLU attorneys representing several homeless plaintiffs argued the ordinance denied the homeless the basic human right to seek shelter. Attorneys for the City of Houston argued the central issue involved the city’s right to manage public spaces and minimize risks for both visitors and the homeless.
In August, U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt ruled the ordinance violated the homeless plaintiffs’ right to avoid cruel and unusual punishment, as guaranteed by the Eight Amendment to the United States Constitution. He ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and granted a temporary restraining order on the city’s enforcement of the ordinance.
“The evidence is conclusive that they (the homeless plaintiffs) are involuntarily in public,” Judge Hoyt wrote, “harmlessly attempting to shelter themselves — an act they cannot realistically forgo, and that is integral to their status as unsheltered homeless individuals.”
After the ruling, Turner released a press statement defending the ordinance which read, in part, “The intent of the ordinance is to take our most vulnerable Houstonians from the streets and place them in permanent supportive housing. 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, especially when items impede on the space and pose risks.”
A 3-week follow-up was required as part of the judge’s ruling, but that action was delayed due to Hurricane Harvey.
By way of an emergency injunction, the ACLU attorneys seek an extension to the order until a trial can be held. The judge will hear arguments before ruling on whether to extend his temporary ban to the camping ordinance.