The Fort Worth City Council unanimously passed an ordinance Tuesday night that would requier those living on vacant lots to have written permission from property owners. Otherwise, they could face a maximum fine of $500.
"No matter who or where the property owner is, nobody has the right to come to your property and just start living there," District 5 Councilwoman Gyna Bivens said.
The proposal was considered at Tuesday night's city council meeting. Supporters said it could help law enforcement monitor homeless camps, but opponents argued it could potentially criminalize being homeless.
Bivens said that is not the intention.
"Recently, we had a situation on the east side of Fort Worth. A property owner had gone on vacation for two weeks, just came back to a horrific scene," Bivens said. "People volunteered, about 30 homeowners, property owners on the east side helped the owner clean the camp. He had just been on vacation."
Ten months ago, Fort Worth police Lt. Amy Ladd said she was moved to the position of Special Projects Lieutenant and tasked with rethinking the police department's response when it came to the homeless.
"There was no overarching goal about how will we define success. It was about going out to the community working with service providers and community partners to build a bridge," Ladd said.
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Ladd was among other presenters who spoke before the council work session Tuesday afternoon, hours before the meeting. According to city leaders, the city's east side faces the biggest problem when it comes to this issue.
A few public health nuisances they have identified as a result of spreading homeless camps include human waste, waste water and garbage, a harborage of rodents and disease-carrying rodents and depositing filth on public and private property.
However, Ladd said the proposed ordinance would still allow police officers to have discretion. Ideally, she said violators would move to centers closer to resources without a financial penalty.
"A homeless person that doesn't have a home isn't going to have $500 to pay a citation, so that's a waste of police resources and court system time. That's why it's so important for us to shift our paradigm from enforcement first to enforcement last," she said. "Nine times out of 10 when we approach a campsite and we ask them to move, they move."
The proposal does not come without criticism. On Tuesday, the ACLU of Texas' senior staff attorney Trisha Trigilio released the following statement:
“Cities cannot penalize their way out of homelessness. Slapping homeless people with fines won’t change their reality. Fort Worth should pursue compassionate and constitutional policy solutions that address why people live in tents.”
In response, Bivens said most of the criticism came from people who don't live with the problem in their backyards.
"All I have to do represent the folks who elected me. Not them," she said.