Houston's mayor said Thursday a court order that's letting homeless camps stay in place despite a city ordinance banning them has caused conditions at the sites to worsen, creating a growing public safety and health hazard.
However, the American Civil Liberties Union, which has sued the city in federal court, said the ordinance is criminalizing homelessness.
"These are public spaces where everyone has the right to go. But it's a place where no one has the right to set up and take over ... with tents, stoves, furniture and other property. It's a place where no one has the right to commit violent crimes," Mayor Sylvester Turner said Thursday. He stood near the site of one of the encampments, made up of more than 100 tents that stretch underneath a highway overpass near downtown.
On Tuesday, a man who was possibly homeless was fatally shot at the encampment. In the last 30 days, two murders and one non-fatal stabbing have taken place at the homeless camp and another one located closer to downtown, Turner said.
"These encampments have become a haven for criminal activity," he said.
The unsanitary conditions, due to large amounts of feces and urine on the ground, are also becoming a public health hazard, said Dr. David Persse, Houston Director of Emergency Medical Services.
This could create a situation similar to one in San Diego, which is dealing with a deadly hepatitis A outbreak that has been traced in part to conditions at its homeless camps, Persse said.
City officials plan to clear out the homeless camps in about a week so they can be cleaned. But Turner said because of the temporary restraining order issued in August, the city cannot prevent people from coming back to the encampments and setting up their tents again.
ACLU senior staff attorney Trisha Trigilio said she wants city leaders to investigate the deadly incidents at the encampments and "not scapegoat the most vulnerable members of our society."
"Jailing people for sheltering in tents does not make Houston safer. Criminalizing homelessness is both cruel and unconstitutional, and creates additional barriers for people seeking stable housing," she said.
In court documents filed this week in the lawsuit, an expert for the ACLU disputed claims the encampments are a health hazard.
Any health hazards alleged by the city are due to "the disruptive force of sweeps and the city's failure to provide adequate hygienic services" such as portable toilets and hand-washing stations, said Sara Rankin, director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project at Seattle University School of Law.
The ordinance banning the encampments was part of six-point plan the city unveiled earlier this year to tackle homelessness in Houston, including providing more permanent housing and an anti-panhandling campaign.
Turner said the city is not criminalizing homelessness with its efforts. Officials say Houston has about 3,400 homeless individuals.
Robert Toussant, whose house is across the street from the homeless encampment where Turner spoke, said he is sad, frustrated and afraid that he has to live in front of the site.
Toussant's front yard fence is topped off by a layer of barbed wire.
"I've always had it but now I'm glad I have it," Toussant said of the barbed wire.
Jamari Grimes, 21, who has lived in the homeless encampment for about two months, said he doesn't believe the city has done enough to help individuals like him.
"We don't have nowhere to go. Are you gonna lock us up for being homeless?" Grimes said.
A decision by a federal judge on whether to lift the temporary restraining order or leave it in place until the ACLU's lawsuit over the ordinance goes to trial is pending.