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Houston mayor rips new lawsuit targeting anti-homeless rules

Houston mayor rips new lawsuit targeting anti-homeless rules
A lawsuit claiming that Houston, Texas rules discriminate against the homeless amounts to a "do nothing" approach, Houston's mayor said. The city has outlawed camping and panhandling, and limited possessions for the homeless.

On Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas sued Houston over new rules passed by the city council last month. One rule outlaws camping or living in tents or other structures, and requires a person's belongings to fit in a three-foot-cube box.

Another rule outlawed panhandling, banning people from asking for money within eight feet of someone in public spaces. Violating either ordinance is a Class C misdemeanor punishable with up to a $500 fine.

Mayor Sylvester Turner ripped the lawsuit on Monday, saying he disagreed with the ACLU's contention that the rules amount to constitutional violations. The suit advocates a "do nothing" approach to homelessness, he said.

"The city's initiatives are not intended to adversely affect anyone's constitutional rights, but rather to balance the legitimate public health and welfare of all citizens in the public space," Turner said at a news conference, according to the Houston Press.

"We should all agree that one person living on the streets is one too many, and the critical question is how do we transition people from being on the streets to a better place in their lives? There are some who would have us do nothing—and based on my reading of the lawsuit filed by ACLU, they would ask us to do nothing."

The panhandling rule went into effect on April 12, while the camping rule took effect on May 12, the same day the ACLU filed its federal lawsuit.

In the suit, the ACLU said the panhandling rule infringes on free speech rights, while the encampment ordinance is cruel and unusual punishment for those seeking to protect and shelter themselves, amounting to a violation of Eighth Amendment rights.

The lawsuit also alleges violations of the Fourth Amendment guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures and Fourteenth Amendment protections against vague laws. The suit seeks class-action status.

The ACLU said it has commended the city for other ways it has reduced homelessness in recent years. Yet, the new city rules "constitute a criminalization of homelessness itself," the civil rights organization said Monday.

"[T]hese latest ordinances abandon that humane approach," said Trisha Trigilio, staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas, of Houston's past efforts compared to the new rules. "The City says they're meant to get people into shelters with 'tough love,' but the truth is the shelters are full and Houston's homeless have nowhere else to go."

The lawsuit seeks an injunction to cease the camping and panhandling bans, as well as the seizure of private property. The suit was filed on behalf of three plaintiffs, who contend that the city's homeless shelters are often full and they have nowhere to go.

"This law shows little respect or sympathy for the impoverished people of Houston," said plaintiff Eugene Stroman. "Living in shelters just isn't an option for us, but if you can't find your own place to live, you’re treated like a criminal."

The panhandling rule does not impede free speech, Turner has said.

"We're not penalizing speech," he said last month, according to the Houston Chronicle. "We are saying your conduct cannot be such that you impede the traffic or the flow of people who have every right to utilize sidewalks, hike and bike trails and their doorways."

Houston police Captain William Stanley said his department will gradually increase enforcement of the camping rule, noting that, per the law, police will take personal property if belongings are not able to fit into a 3-foot cube.

Turner, a Democrat, has said the new rules could serve as a "gentle nudge" for the city's homeless to get "to a better place in their lives."

A Houston police memo sent to officers on Friday said arrest should be the last resort in the process of enforcing the camping ordinance, Courthouse News reported. Officers were ordered to offer medical help or temporary shelter before taking action.

Since 2011, Houston's homeless population has declined from 8,500 to 3,600, according to a March press release from the mayor's office.