Houston is praised for its homelessness strategy — it includes a camping ban

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The City of Houston receives national praise for cutting its homeless population in half over the past decade — providing housing for more than 19,000 people along the way.

Part of the approach includes a public camping ban.

The “Homes Not Handcuffs” rally held at UT Austin Saturday, May 1. The gathering aimed to urge residents to vote against Prop B, which would criminalize homeless camping (KXAN/Mariano Garza)

“A carrot and a stick approach is the best approach,” said Marc Eichenbaum, a special assistant to Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner on homelessness initiatives.

Houston’s ban is only enforced when alternative housing options are available. Eichenbaum said that 85-90% of encampment residents accept an offer of housing, while only 2% will jump at available shelter space.

“A ban in and of itself is not going to solve homelessness,” Eichenbaum told KXAN. “If you’re just going to be doing enforcement without any offer of alternative housing, you’re just moving folks around.”

The reinstatement of a public camping ban in Austin has been met with apprehension and fear from those experiencing homelessness and advocates. While Austin voters resoundingly approved a ballot proposition to reinstate the ban on May 1, city leadership didn’t announce their education-first approach until noon on Tuesday, the effective date of the ordinance.

In addition to Houston, Austin joins Amarillo, Corpus Christi, and San Antonio in having city-wide camping bans in place. San Antonio, however, only enforces its ordinance when there is a threat to public safety.

A survey of 187 cities by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty in 2019 found that 34% had city-wide camping bans in place. The report noted a 60% increase in cities with city-wide camping bans from 2011 to 2019.

“It certainly hasn’t ended homelessness in any of these communities,” said Eric Tars, NLCHP legal director. “We see a broken housing system and the homelessness system is being blamed for the failures of that broken housing system.”

Like Houston’s strategy to end homelessness, the City of Austin’s goal of housing 3,000 people in three years will require buy-in from local governments, non-profits, philanthropists, and the private sector.

Eichenbaum commended the plan adding that, with a camping ban now in place, the dream must become a reality.

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