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Homeless ordinances have misguided but good intentions

Storm, who preferred not to give a last name, lives in a homeless encampment under a U.S. Highwasy 59 overpass near Wheeler Station. He and the other people who live there are in danger of being forced out of the area by the city. | Thomas Dwyer/The Cougar

Two homeless ordinances passed by the Houston City Council earlier this month will effectively prohibit makeshift shelters and panhandling in certain areas. While critics may see this as a way of criminalizing homelessness, Mayor Sylvester Turner’s long-term intentions are good.

The biggest problem with this initiative is that it happens too often not only in Houston, but also the rest of the United States. Instead of building alternative programs, shelters or counseling havens and then codifying homeless-related provisions, cities do the opposite.

Before the Super Bowl, a small tent city largely populated by  homeless people underneath U.S. Highway 59 was cleared. There isn’t a PR firm in the world that can convince me the big game wasn’t the underlying reason for the clearance.

Sadly, those are the casualties of city planning when it comes to huge, national events. Mayor Turner became mayor when the Super Bowl was approaching, and his plans for other initiatives may have been put on the backburner until the game was finished.

The most recent ordinances are in blatant preparation for the supposed housing-first approaches to come. So, what’s the hurry at this point? The Way Home Initiative is part of Mayor Turner’s plan to find supportive housing for Houston’s homeless population, but the functional aspects of the plan are still in the pre-production stages.

Houston has made tremendous strides to reduce its homeless populations. The city deserves more credit for harboring change in the homeless community than the pre-Super Bowl clearing of encampments indicates, but this “ban and then build” effort to provide more counseling and housing resources is backwards.

The two ordinances address different issues, and I believe one has more merit than the other. The panhandling ordinance not only addresses more than just a nuisance; it is most definitely a safety concern. Some panhandlers are passive but others can become aggressive.

For these reasons, I believe the ordinance should exist as a reason to prevent aggressive panhandling in the future, even if passive panhandling is largely ignored by law enforcement for practical reasons. Law enforcement and adequate social services are also seen as largely preventive measures for decreasing panhandling prevalence.

The encampment ordinance is a little more troublesome. While people are still permitted to sleep on city property, it bans makeshift shelters with little recourse for action.

Estimates of the homeless population from the Department of Housing and Urban Development make the distinction between the sheltered and unsheltered populations. Although theoretically those two terms are distinguished from each other, it is hard to make a distinction between the two in actual experience. Until recently, unsheltered individuals were at least sheltered from weather and other conditions through the use of makeshift coverings.

The ever-increasing concern for the homeless communities can be seen in a number of coalitions that have popped up over the past few years. 

To outlaw something and then act as though we can effectively analyze and recommend preventative measures to curb the size of a demographic not allowed to exist is asinine.

We will no longer be able to adequately prescribe the correct remedies to tent cities, panhandlers, or the outdoor population if we never take the time to understand what we are banning in the first place.

Opinion columnist Nicholas Bell is an MBA graduate student and can be reached at [email protected].

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