City Hall

Texas Bills Target Homeless by Proposing Class C Misdemeanor for Camping

Homelessness advocate Ryan Ahmadian suspects Dallas' encampment enforcement would be more aggressive under a statewide ban.
Homelessness advocate Ryan Ahmadian suspects Dallas' encampment enforcement would be more aggressive under a statewide ban. Jacob Vaughn
Organizers and the homeless residents of Camp Rhonda have been in a game of cat and mouse with the city. They were recently chased out of their protest in Pioneer Plaza.

Now, two bills are being taken up in the Texas House and Senate that aim to ban the homeless from camping in public statewide.

If either bill passes, homeless campers could be charged with a Class C misdemeanor. Additionally, cities that take steps to discourage or reduce enforcement of the law may be disqualified from receiving state grants and funding.

HB 1925 and SB 987, which have nearly identical language, would make 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 a public place.

In effect, the homeless would have even fewer options. The shelters are pretty much at capacity, there’s not enough affordable housing and some homeless have lost faith in the system and choose to fend for themselves on the streets.

“The way these policies play out on the street in a material way is cities have to crack down more on encampments." – Ryan Ahmadian, Dallas Houseless Committee

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Ryan Ahmadian, cofounder of the Dallas Houseless Committee and a member of Dallas Stops Evictions, said efforts like these are nothing new to homelessness activists.

He said there was a campaign involving grassroots groups around the state to contact their representatives to say they oppose this ban. Additionally, a hearing for the House bill will take place at 8 a.m. Thursday.

The homeless encampments are a symptom of the lack of housing and shelter, and it’s important for people to see this, Ahmadian said. Under the bill, he said the homeless would be pushed even farther out of sight and out of mind.

He said instead of spending money on enforcing the criminalization of homelessness, those funds should be spent on housing, “which is a human right.”

Feed the People Mutual Aid, another activist group, raised nearly $200,000 to help those affected by last month's winter storms. About $30,000 was used to put up Camp Rhonda residents in more than 20 hotel rooms.

If they had the resources, they’d like to get all the people they help off the streets and into hotels while they work on more permanent solutions. That's especially so if these bills pass and the homeless face the possibility of criminal charges. However, this simply isn’t realistic with the resources they have at their disposal.

Because of this, Ahmadian said their tactics wouldn’t change much if either bill passes. They would basically just have to keep up with the cat and mouse chase, but Ahmadian suspects the city would be more aggressive under the bill.

“The way these policies play out on the street in a material way is cities have to crack down more on encampments,” he said.

According to a 2019 report by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, 37% of surveyed cities impose citywide bans on camping in pubic. It’s been an uphill battle trying to get the city to consider cutting back on homeless sweeps and dedicating more resources to homeless solutions, Ahmadian said. But he hopes the upcoming elections will bring representatives who are more receptive to their efforts.

These bills would make it even harder for them to make significant changes on encampment enforcement because their efforts would have to be focused at the state level, instead of the city or county level.

Sen. Dawn Buckingham, who filed SB 987, didn't respond for comment, but she said in a press release that she’s proud “to protect Texans from activist, agenda-driven city councils who put their citizens in danger and destroy their cities” by allowing the homeless to camp in public. She said the homeless camping situation continues to grow and jeopardize the safety of citizens.

“While we should prioritize the well-being of those experiencing homelessness through better access to social services and workforce development, especially on the local level, allowing camping in public places in not the answer,” she said. "Too many times have we seen innocent bystanders harassed, attacked, and even assaulted by those publicly camping in our streets, and the time has come to finally put an end to this lawless charade."

Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, who filed HB 1925, wrote in a Twitter post about the bill, "We must prioritize the well-being of those experiencing homelessness and provide resources to re-enter the workforce and communities."

He didn't respond to request for comment or offer an explanation of how exactly his bill would improve the well-being of homeless people.
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Jacob Vaughn, a former Brookhaven College journalism student, has written for the Observer since 2018, first as clubs editor. More recently, he's been in the news section as a staff writer covering City Hall, the Dallas Police Department and whatever else editors throw his way.
Contact: Jacob Vaughn