On Sept. 1, a new law, House Bill 1925, bans camping in public spaces and went into effect in Texas. The ban joins a growing list of measures advocates say criminalize homelessness around the country.
Even though Walker would rather see Dallas' homeless population given opportunities to get back inside, he knows there aren't enough shelters or affordable housing in the city, and he says banning camping won't do anything to fix homelessness in general.
"Practically speaking, I don’t think it’s much more than gaslighting, but it is unfortunate that they’ve passed some more legislation without passing the ability to do anything," Walker said. "Passing legislation like this just passes the buck. It doesn’t really do anything to address homelessness or to help people off the streets."
HB 1925 made it illegal to be sheltered in a “tent, tarpaulin, lean-to, sleeping bag, bedroll, blankets, or any form of shelter, other than clothing, designed to protect a person from weather conditions” in public.
The bill allows homeless campers to be charged with Class C misdemeanors. Homeless advocates campaigned against the bill before it passed, but Gov. Greg Abbott signed it into law on June 15.
Now, as the state spars with local authorities over new legislation like permitless carry for guns and abortion restrictions, Texas officials are threatening to pull funds from cities that don’t enforce the camping ban.
Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton sent a joint letter on Sept. 9 to the Texas Association of Counties, the Texas Municipal League and cities across the state, reminding them all that the ban must be enforced. The same letter went out to Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, Houston, Fort Worth, El Paso, Arlington, Corpus Christi and Plano.
“The Governor and Attorney General Paxton note that failure to enforce the law by local officials could result in costly litigation and a loss of state grant funds,” the letter said.
The two also said several successful homeless assistance service providers testified in support of the ban, noting it’s “almost impossible” to provide the homeless with resources when they’re living in encampments. “In addition, these providers testified to the inhumane conditions of these camps which were often littered with garbage, and human waste, and served as hotbeds for human trafficking, property related crimes, and drug use,” the letter said.
They argue that an unprecedented amount of federal funding, $358 million, has been made available to local entities to help the homeless. An additional $52.9 million in state funding was made available for service providers in August, with another $100 million on the way. The state also received more than $92 million of CARES Act dollars to fund service providers for the homeless, the letter said.
"In the coming months, we will be monitoring local entities across Texas to ensure compliance with House Bill 1925,” the letter warned. “We trust that you will begin enforcing the public camping ban in good faith. Doing so will achieve our shared goal of delivering improved services for the homeless and safer communities for everyone."
But Catherine Cuellar, a spokesperson for the city, said in an email, that the ban doesn’t really affect Dallas. “The state ban is built to activate if the local law is weaker,” Cuellar said. “Dallas already bans camping without a permit so this doesn’t currently apply.”
“... Why don’t we penalize the cities that don’t create places for [the homeless] to sleep?” – Wayne Walker, OurCalling
She said the only way HB 1925 would risk Dallas’ state funding is if there were suddenly a sanctioned encampment and the city didn’t work to dissolve it.
Ryan Ahmadian, cofounder of the Dallas Houseless Committee and a member of Dallas Stops Evictions, has said homeless encampments are a symptom of the lack of housing and shelter, and it’s important for people to see them. Ahmadian fears the camping ban will push the homeless population even further to the margins.
The county recently gave the final approval for the new Dallas Real Time Rapid Rehousing initiative. It’s a $70 million plan to place more than 2,700 residents in supportive housing in the next couple of years. The money is coming from private and federal dollars.
The Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance is raising $10 million in private donations, while the Dallas Housing Authority hands out $10 million in vouchers. The city and county are also throwing in $25 million each from federal stimulus money for the initiative. But the rehousing program doesn’t address Dallas’ lack of affordable housing.
Council member Cara Mendelsohn criticized the initiative for this ahead of a reluctant vote in support of it at City Hall last month. “We’ll have nothing to show for this plan in three years, in five years or 10 years, because we’ll have spent it all on rent instead of spending it and investing it in structures that could last decades,” she said.
Despite the lack of affordable housing in the initiative, Walker, Ahmadian, and several other advocates who provide assistance to the region's homeless spoke in support of it. The city recently updated its homeless encampment approach as part of this initiative, according to a Sept. 10 memo from Chief of Staff Kimberly Bizor Tolbert.
Dallas’ outreach teams are trying to get every unsheltered homeless person enrolled into their system and provide on-site identification of needs so they can secure housing. The city wants to do this before closing down encampments permanently.
Meanwhile, more and more people are showing up at Dallas' Austin Street Center shelter with hopes of finding a place to stay. The ban's "timing is rough," said Austin Street's Daniel Roby. "There is already insufficient shelter capacity, especially due to COVID-19, the eviction moratorium is over and rapid rehousing is not operational."
OurCalling's Wayne Walker says there are better options than banning camping. “Rather than penalizing people that are trying to sleep outside who have nowhere to sleep," he said, "why don’t we penalize the cities that don’t create places for them to sleep?”