The new panhandling ordinance

This happened last week; I didn’t have a chance to really look at it before now.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Residents who impede the use of a Houston roadway, or block a sidewalk or building entrance could be charged with a misdemeanor under an ordinance passed Wednesday by City Council.

The ordinance aimed at curbing panhandling was paired with a ban on unauthorized encampments in public places – an effort to crack down on homeless camps that have drawn resident and council member ire in recent months. The encampment ban is set to take effect in 30 days.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said he thinks the new rules help to achieve a “delicate balance” between ensuring safety and helping the homeless.

“The whole notion is to strike a balance between addressing their needs and their concerns and putting them in a better position in their lives, and at the same time the neighborhood concerns in terms of people being in their doorway or blocking the sidewalk,” Turner said.


Tristia Bauman, a senior attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, warned of potential constitutional violations, also saying she thought the laws would be ineffective.

“This law as written is constitutionally concerning, and I think it’s very vulnerable to legal challenge,” she said of the encampment rules. “To create a punishment for people who are attempting to survive on the street when they have no alternative is a violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.”

Marc Eichenbaum, special assistant to the mayor for homeless initiatives, said the city has worked with groups like Star of Hope and the Salvation Army to ensure there are sufficient shelter beds for the city’s homeless.

“For individuals who want to go to a shelter, there is a place for them,” Eichenbaum said.

Bauman pointed to those with mental health issues or disabilities who may be unable to go to a shelter.

Turner’s plan to curb homelessness, announced last month, also includes proposals to house 500 chronically homeless people by early September and construct alternative, professionally staffed “low-level” shelters under highway overpasses or on private property.

These outdoor spaces are intended to help accommodate people who are unable or unwilling to go to an indoor shelter.

Here’s an earlier story about what Council had been considering; the proposed ordinance was tagged until last week. As someone who currently works downtown, I can attest that panhandlers are a nuisance, and can sometimes be scary. Houston has made a lot of progress in reducing the number of homeless residents, especially homeless veterans, and part of this program is intended to further that work. There are some details to be filled in, and there are concerns about the legality of this ordinance as well as its likely effectiveness. I’m not sure what to think at this point.

In the meantime, there’s also this.

Phillip Bryant carries tuna cans and water bottles in his car and often spontaneously delivers them to the poor he sees throughout the Houston streets.

However, Bryant, who describes himself as a devout Christian, contends the city’s charitable feeding ordinance prohibits this and also violates his religious rights.

He filed a lawsuit Wednesday night in Harris County court challenging the ordinance, which requires advocates to obtain permission from property owners – public or private – before feeding more than five people. Violation of the ordinance is considered a criminal misdemeanor and is punishable by up to $2,000, according to the lawsuit.


Although not mandatory, the city encourages those feeding the homeless to register as a food service organization and receive food safety training. The only required step is a person must seek permission from the property owner before feeding more than five people.

I’ll be honest, I’m a little unclear as to what the point of contention is here, but I guess we’ll see what the courts make of it.

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8 Responses to The new panhandling ordinance

  1. Bill Daniels says:

    I’ve thought about this a lot. We could retrofit shipping containers into spartan, efficiency living quarters for not just homeless, but also to rehome people currently in Section 8 housing, or in housing projects. This would both provide a safety net where people struggling could have basic needs met, and a springboard to encouraging those who can to work toward moving out of the shipping container and into the private housing market.

    Fit 40′ containers with a shower, toilet, kitchen sink, fridge, stove, microwave and a window unit a/c. For the homeless, who would be moving in with nothing, donated beds, dressers, etc. could be used. For families, especially with kids, some kind of hanging curtain arrangement to provide privacy. Perhaps provide a smaller 20′ container to those moving in from Section 8 housing, so they can store their stuff while they work towards self sufficiency?

    For those who can’t follow the rules of the container community, maybe have a secondary, off site location? Move those folks into smaller, similarly equipped 20′ containers. They are still out of the elements, with basic needs met, but they can see that actions have consequences.

    Centralizing people who cannot currently afford to provide their own housing would make it easier to provide social services, like counseling, job placement, drug and alcohol treatment, etc.

    For the people currently renting with Section 8 vouchers, it would be cheaper for the taxpayers to provide this housing for free, and hopefully, people would desire to better their circumstances by saving money no longer being spent on rent. This might be an impetus for them to seek out self sufficiency, while at the same time, finally addressing our homeless problem.

    I’m thinking utilities would be provided on a sliding scale, with those getting water and electric free or at reduced price would have some kind of monthly cap, so they could learn budgeting skills, i.e., so they don’t have to sit in the dark at the end of the month because they blew through the electric budget in 15 days.

  2. C.L. says:

    Bill, your idea sounds like the prelim screenplay for the 2009 movie, District 9. If we could just get to the aliens to adopt our simple, social constructs, the problem’s solved !

  3. Bill Daniels says:


    Actually, it’s part “tiny house movement,” part fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers, and part wishful thinking, because there is always going to be a core group of homeless that WANT to live on the street, and wouldn’t live in container housing. They won’t let Star of Hope or the Salvation Army help them currently. That’s what the proposed panhandling ordinance, the feeding ordinance, etc. are trying to do….make it hard on that core group that refuse to even try and reintegrate into society, and we all want that. Even Kuff mentions that these folks are not just unseemly, but dangerous.

    Short of offering them one way bus tickets to California, along with vouchers for food, booze and pot once they get there, I don’t know how to solve the problem of the core homeless who refuse help. Incarcerating them for petty crimes doesn’t effect them, and it’s too hard to have them committed to mental institutions to forcibly get help. So, what do we do to get those people to stop menacing Kuff on the way to and from work each day?

  4. Bill Daniels says:


    In any event, as usual, the proposed solution comes down to money, and where it is coming from. You’ll note my solution is funded by Section 8 dollars, which will be redirected to purchasing the container-homes and the associated utility hookups, security, consolidation of social services, etc. I’m thinking this can be done for $ 15,000 per unit, maybe less. If we are paying $ 7,500 on Sec. 8 rent subsidies per person, per year, then we break even after year two, and have something durable to show for our taxpayer money that in year 3. We can start saving the taxpayers money, or, alternatively, have the savings thrown at more social services to reintegrate the homeless, the former Section 8ers, and the project residents back into the private housing market.

    Whichever option we choose, it’s still a win for the homeless we are trying to help, a win for the taxpayers, and an opportunity for Section 8 folks to save money and have better access to social services.

  5. C.L. says:

    And where pray tell do you propose as a location for this shining city upon a hill, er..I mean, this sea of rusty, port o Houston obtained containers ?, and how exactly do you come up with the $15K/untl cost ?

  6. Bill Daniels says:

    @C.L. I’m thinking in East Houston, along Old Beaumont Highway somewhere. You know they house sex offenders right across from the landfill. Also, the county’s pauper cemetery is there. The area is served by Metro, there are plenty of job opportunities in the area, especially for people trying to re-enter the work force like the homeless. There are lots of container yards in the area, so the raw material for the housing doesn’t have to be trucked far.

    Last I checked, a 40′ used container costs somewhere around $ 3,000, and I figure they could be retrofitted and installed for another $ 7,000, or so, leaving $ 5,000 for the utility hookups and land prep. If space is an issue, they could be stacked two high.

  7. C.L. says:

    Sounds like a grand plan.

  8. Bill Daniels says:


    The folks in England spent more money retrofitting the containers, because they made them nicer, paneled the walls, etc. I’d do the bare minimum to keep both initial costs, and maintenance costs, down. It doesn’t have to feel comfortable, or feel like home, it just has to feel safe….a place where basic needs are met so folks can use it as a jumping off point to improve their lot in life.

    Look at this from Kuff’s point of view. The mayor’s plan houses them in, what, tents, under centralized highway overpasses. That means that they will still be harassing Kuff, as Kuff goes to and from work. My plan helps Kuff, the homeless, those collecting Section 8 welfare, AND the taxpayers.

    So right now we have the following choices regarding the homeless:

    1) status quo
    2) Mayor T’s plan to aggregate them under selected overpasses
    3) container community

    If you have a different plan, post it up.

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