A bill banning homeless encampments could hurt Houston's efforts to house its homeless population, a local nonprofit says.
House Bill 1925 — drafted in response to the city of Austin, which briefly lifted a citywide ban on such encampments — would make camping in an unapproved public place a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500.
State Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, who authored the bill, said it would not apply to cities such as Houston that already have a citywide ban at least as strong as the one in the legislation.
But that’s not correct, according to Mike Nichols, president and CEO of the Coalition for the Homeless Houston.
"I mean, I don't know why he would say that, because that's not true,” Nichols said. “We're not exempt. We asked to be exempt, but they refused that amendment.”
Nichols said the ban would make it harder for his group to house people in encampments and get them permanently off the streets.
The coalition and others go into those encampments and talk to people about available housing. That includes working with landlords, finding available units, finding funding, and more.
That strategy also requires cooperation with police, who may now find themselves forced by HB 1925 to take a more punitive approach in dealing with the city’s homeless population.
"It puts police in a hard position, because when we're out there saying, ‘we need to work with you and get these folks housed before you come in there,' they don't know if they're violating the state law or not,” Nichols said. “Having the police come in and giving tickets doesn't do anything. All it does is frustrate people, and if they leave, they go into the neighborhoods. It just doesn't solve any problems.”
State law already tilts the playing field against those seeking to find permanent housing for the homeless. In Texas, landlords can legally discriminate against people with federal housing vouchers, which Nichols said makes up many of the cases the coalition deals with. Texas also makes it difficult to house people with criminal records — something that would be exacerbated under the new law, he said.
Houston could face a loss of state funding if the city declines to enforce the measure to the state's satisfaction.
The Houston mayor's office told Houston Public Media that it is studying the potential impact of HB 1925, but otherwise declined to comment.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo likewise indicated that the county is still trying to come to grips with what the measure could mean for the region.
In a statement, Hidalgo also said the city and county “have made enormous steps to tackle homelessness," pointing to a joint investment of some $47 million in a program announced last July, with private sources investing an additional $18 million.