Texas likely to ban homeless encampments in unapproved public places after bill is sent to governor

ByReese Oxner, The Texas Tribune
Tuesday, June 1, 2021
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AUSTIN, Texas -- Texas is poised to outlaw homeless encampments across the state after the House signed off on the Senate's changes to House Bill 1925, sending it to the governor for final approval.

The bill would make camping in an unapproved public place a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $500. Cities may not opt out of the ban or discourage enforcement of it.

Abbott has signaled that he would sign the bill. He's been a vocal critic of Austin officials for lifting the city's homeless encampment ban two years ago. Lawmakers cited that decision as motivation for introducing this bill. Earlier this month, 57% of Austin residents voted to reinstate the city's ban after critics said it sparked the spread of encampments in the city.

This legislation does not affect cities that have camping bans that are at least as strong as the ones outlined in the bill, said state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, the bill's author. That includes cities like Houston and San Antonio, which have bans already in place, as well as relief programs.

A change to the bill also bans cities from using public parks as homeless encampment sites - which Austin recently announced it would do. Cities would first have to seek approval from Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs before they could use public parks, and these rules would apply retroactively - meaning Austin and cities with similar programs would need to get permission to continue using the parks as sites.

The bill calls for law enforcement officers to redirect homeless people to available local resources - such as shelters or nonprofit groups - "before or at the time" they issue a citation. An amendment from the Senate strikes the word "arrest" from the bill's language, which Capriglione said Friday is to "clarify that law enforcement officers would have provided the person the information ... only before at the time of issuing a citation and not arrest."

Supporters of the bill say it will help house people experiencing homelessness and drive cities to provide more resources to them. State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, last week called it the "humanitarian bill of the session."

But advocates for homeless people are skeptical.

Eric Samuels, president and CEO of the Texas Homeless Network, said he hasn't observed a time that a camping ban has helped homelessness in an area - including in Austin, where he lives.

Samuels said that if fines are levied against people - who could eventually be arrested due to continued offenses or inability to pay - it could present an "enormous barrier" to someone trying to escape homelessness.

In any case, Samuels said this legislation doesn't offer solutions to homelessness - and there needs to be a next step toward recovery after criminalization.

"If passing this legislation means that we're sick of seeing people in the streets, good, let's do something about it," Samuels said. "We're ready, our partners around the state are ready and, most importantly, people experiencing homelessness are ready."

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