The August MPNA meeting featured a panel discussion/presentation related to Houston’s efforts to address homelessness, the current encampment under US-59. A list of questions was circulated to the panelists in advance of the meeting (see attached).
President Sandy Stevens called the meeting to order at 6:01 PM. Following a general overview, she turned the meeting over to Greg Quintero, Chair of the Safety & Security committee. Greg provided an overview of format, recognized the newly formed ad hoc committee tasked with formulating suggestions related to the current encampment situation, and asked the panel to introduce themselves.
Kim Mickelson, MPNA Vice President, consulting city attorney
After thanking everyone for coming, Kim provided a general overview of the current state of affairs in Houston, some history about how the courts have viewed other municipalities’ ordinances aimed at reducing encampments, and the importance of respecting and balancing the Constitutional rights of all citizens. Key points: it is not illegal to be homeless, sleeping on public land is not a crime, and personal possessions must be protected.
Marc Eichenbaum, Special Assistant to the Mayor for Homeless Initiatives
The encampment under US-59 is the top priority for the City with regard to homelessness. Mayor Turner & Marc visited the encampment Aug 1. However, there is a lawsuit and care must and will be taken to ensure that future endeavors are not jeopardized by rash decision making. The Mayor views the ordinances pertaining to encampments and panhandling to be necessary, valid & constitutional.
· Other Texas cities have anti-encampment ordinances that have not been legally challenged; however, their ordinances are much older than Houston’s.
· The City has secured storage space for personal possessions that exceed the size limits specified by the anti-encampment ordinance, and this program is up and running. There are twice weekly trash clean-ups by the Dept of Solid Waste at the Wheeler encampment.
· The Health Dept is in the process of assessing and preparing a report about the Wheeler encampment. Should they find that the area is a public health nuisance in need of full cleaning, there will be swift action to clear the area while respecting the rights and needs of those residing in the encampment. Enforcement of the ordinances would be the next step after the clean-up. No firm dates are available at this time.
· The City is focusing on providing housing to the homeless population. Houston, however, has fewer financial resources for this endeavor in comparison to other major cities. Federal funding for HUD vouchers has been reduced; the City is unable to issue any new vouchers. Two weeks ago, Mayor Turner proposed & Council approved redirecting $2.4 million of other funds for housing. People living in the encampment have been assessed for housing. At this time, the major need is to identify landlords willing to rent out appropriate units.
· In the near future, the area beneath US 59 between Austin and La Branch will be fenced in and used as a private parking lot for a local nonprofit organization.
· Report any illegal activity you observe to HPD. The City is working on a solution to allow HPD to address concerns related to small fires.
Lt. Shamara Garner & Officer Nick Vogelsang (Homeless Outreach Team), HPD
· Call 911 for immediate threats (eg, break-in in progress, life-threatening situations).
· Call HPD non-emergency [713-884-3131] for other matters, including crimes that have already taken place.
· HPD has identified and entered into a database the individuals currently residing under US-59. The new city ordinances have been explained to everyone in the encampment and efforts are underway to provide help and resources to those who want it.
· Regarding drug use: Kush is the #1 drug issue in the encampment. Due to the nature of this drug, immediate arrests are not possible as testing is required to identify the substances in the drug. Sales, possession, and use of illegal narcotics will be enforced, but such activity is nearly impossible for uniformed officers to observe.
· The Sobering Center Team is working in conjunction with the Recovery Center to address public intoxication.
Frank Carmody, Houston 311
· Do not contact 311 for crimes (eg, drug activity, theft, assault): these issues should be reported to HPD.
· Do contact 311 for non-police issues such as illegal dumping/accumulation of garbage.
· If you call 311, they can help to direct you to the appropriate person or city department. Clear descriptions of offenses will help to ensure that issues are routed properly.
· Sandy noted that the online 311 pulldown menu allows the reporting of human waste on public property.
Marilyn Brown, Houston Coalition for the Homeless
The Coalition for the Homeless (‘Coalition’) is a private, nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide leadership in the development, advocacy, and coordination of community strategies to prevent and end homelessness. The Coalition is tasked with bringing together all local organizations dealing with various aspects of homelessness in the collaborative effort, The Way Home Houston (http://www.thewayhomehouston.org/). Their goal is to prevent and end homelessness by providing housing and the necessary wraparound services (eg, health care, job training, counseling, child care). Over 11,000 people have been placed in housing, with 95% still in housing at the 2-yr mark.
· Outreach requires federal (housing) and state (mental health & substance abuse treatment) funds. These budgets often change (and often decrease) creating gaps in funding, and consequentially difficulties in long-term planning. A lack of dependable funds also harms the credibility of homeless advocates whose promises of help/resources sometimes are unable to be honored. Local companies and philanthropic organizations are key partners, with federal dollars providing a match for private donations.
· Approximately 150 individuals are residing at the Wheeler/Chartres encampments.
· ~2/3 of those living in Houston encampments self-identify as having mental health issues. Mental health problems can quickly lead to substance abuse issues through a cycle of self-medication.
· Texas lacks long-term mental health care; the maximum length of a mental health ‘hold’ is 11 days—rarely sufficient time to make a meaningful difference.
· Shelters are not a long-term solution; the solution to homelessness is homes.
· In addition to the need for housing units for those transitioning from the street or shelters, there is also a need for affordable housing that is accessible to public transportation and support services.
· Public awareness campaigns (radio, billboards, meetings with faith leaders) are underway for the Meaningful Change, not Spare Change initiative (http://meaningfulchange.org/). Rather than giving money or food/supplies directly to people who are in need, residents who would like to help can direct funds to agencies capable of assisting the homeless (and former homeless) with long-term help & support. Note: donations are placed in a general fund so that they may be directed to helping those most in need.