Although two Killeen City Council members have asked officials to consider a ban on people experiencing homelessness not camping, Texas law prohibits the enforcement of such a law under a US Court of Appeals ruling.
That’s according to San Antonio councilor Robert Marbot Jr., who conducted a study on homelessness in Killeen, Temple and Peel County and presented his findings twice to City Council this year, and the Killeen Staff Report.
The city report shows that the camping ban “attempts to move those experiencing homelessness toward programs and services.” “Implementation requires an alternate camp site. If it is public property, the site must be approved by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs.”
In 2019, the Supreme Court declined to review Martin v. Boise after the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that “homeless persons cannot be punished for sleeping outside on public property in the absence of adequate alternatives,” according to the National Homelessness Law Center. “The Supreme Court’s decision, issued without comment, means the April 2019 ruling is binding in the Ninth Circuit, covers nine states including most Western states, and carries national leverage.”
Councilwoman Jesica Gonzalez and councilwoman Ramon Alvarez in October asked the council to put an item on the agenda to discuss adopting an ordinance banning loitering by people experiencing homelessness after members of the Killeen Downtown Merchants Association complained of being downtown.
“We’re just trying to figure out the best way to help the police department and property owners get people off their properties and from camping on their facilities,” Gonzalez said in October. “The police have asked some cities to put up ‘no trespassing’ signs, and some cities have ordinances. That’s part of the conversation we’ll have.”
Some people experiencing homelessness are creating problems downtown, Alvarez said, asking for the item to be placed on the meeting’s agenda.
“I have been approached recently by several downtown business owners and members of the Downtown Merchants Association about their most recent experiences with homeless people in the area,” he said. “These experiences ranged from defecation outside their premises, to constant harassment and damage to their premises or private property.”
In the same request, Alvarez said the state’s no-camping law is “too cumbersome and ineffective to enforce (but) the city, as an internal rule, can be tougher than the state, so by creating our own law, we can tailor it” for our community and help business owners in the middle The city to feel comfortable.
Under Texas law, cities with more than 5,000 residents are granted self-government authority as home rule municipalities and municipalities under common law. However, the case of Martin v. Boise is preventing Killeen from enforcing ordinances “forbidding public camping unless sufficient shelter beds are made available to house homeless persons within its jurisdiction,” according to the task force’s report.
Friends in Crisis, the city’s only homeless shelter, has 78 beds. About 200 people experience homelessness in Killeen each day, Marbott said, and another 150 experience homelessness “every year that Fort Hood is around.”
According to a preliminary study conducted through an interfaith agreement between Killeen City Councils and Temple City, Marbott found that approximately 16% of the homeless population in Killeen were born in Peel County. Approximately 42% had jobs in Bell County before experiencing homelessness, and approximately 65% began experiencing homelessness in Bell County.
In Killeen, the average age of homelessness is 47.6 years, and they spend nearly 13 years in homelessness. Just over 60% are male and about 19% are veterans.
On Tuesday, Marbutt told city council members that Killeen, Temple and Bell County will provide funding to build two college campuses — one in each city — for those experiencing homelessness. The nonprofit, called the Arbor of Hope, will include representatives from the county and both cities.
“There will be four people from the county, three people from Killeen, three people from Temple and one from the agencies, one from the (Council of Governments) and whatever the CEO is,” said Marbott. “You’d have one on the east side, and then you’d have the conversion center in the middle of the county, and the Arbor of Hope, basically, on the west.”
Today, this plan is conceptual and involves moving friends in crisis. The Killeen campus will be built on Liberty Street. Marbott said about 50 such organizations exist in the United States.
“There are none of those today in the county,” he said. “It’s all organized around … nine clinical tracks.”
These are visitor growth, early intervention, males and females experiencing homelessness domestically, “intensive” mental health and substance use disorder treatment, “sober living,” veterans, “separated” former military dependents and long-term supportive care.
Marbot said Centex ARC, Hilltop Recovery Services and Virtue Recovery Center will be integrated into the overall homelessness reduction plan.
“The key is to focus on reducing the number of people experiencing homelessness at the street level,” he said. “Under any scenario, basically, you have over 55 percent of people experiencing homelessness in Killeen who have no prior ties (to the city) at all.”
Marbott, whose second report to city council since September has been called “preliminary recommendations,” said he plans to return in January with a final report.
Meanwhile, city officials recommend enforcing “nuisance violations” and increasing patrols, working with downtown business owners to install cameras and gated areas “with frequent incidents” and discourage trespassing from landlords.
The Texas Tribune reported in August 2021 that three months after Austin voters approved a renewed ban on public camping through a ballot initiative called Proposition B, the city has begun enforcing the ordinance—violation of which is a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a fine. Up to $500.
Austin’s push to enforce the law came less than a month before a statewide ban on public camping went into effect — a law that followed Gov. Greg Abbott’s repeated criticism of Austin’s decision to overturn the city’s camping ban in 2019, the Tribune reported.
New state law criminalizes public camping and prohibits cities from adopting policies prohibiting or discouraging any public ban on camping. Cities that adopt such ordinances could risk legal action from the state attorney general and potentially lose state grant money, according to the Tribune.
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