Houston's top cop defends homeless ticketing

McClelland says garbage picking is public health issue

HOUSTON - Houston's top cop is defending the enforcement by one of his officers of a city ordinance that bans disturbing the contents of a garbage can, but some are calling it an attack on the homeless.

Last week, a homeless man and veteran, James Kelly, was given a citation by a Houston Police officer for going through a garbage can.

"All too often you feel that nobody gives a damn whether you live or die, but hearing about the support does my heart good," said Kelly.

The man said he was searching for doughnuts when he saw someone throw them in a garbage receptacle. The ticket sparked a public outcry. Police Chief Charles McClelland said he understands but is defending his officer for issuing the ticket.

"I certainly understand the sentiments, but we still have to protect the homeless and we want them to be safe. There are certainly many places that provide food so people don't have to dig through a trash receptacle," said McClelland.

The ordinance is specific to the Central Business District. It is a violation of city ordinance for anyone to remove any contents of any bin, bag or other container that has been placed for collection of garbage, trash or recyclable materials. (See the ordinance: Art. 1 Sec. 39-2, Houston Code of Ordinances). An officer has probable cause to issue such a citation when a person is seen opening a lid and rummaging through contents of a dumpster or trash can.

 "If this is their way to wage war on the homeless to push them out of downtown it only going to make matters that much worse for our homeless dealing with unfortunate circumstances," said Shere Dore of  Food Not Bombs, a Houston organization who feeds those in need.

While those who help feed the homeless see it as an attack, the police chief said it is a public health issue.

"When someone is getting food out of the trash, it could be contaminated. We don't want anyone to get sick or die," said McClelland.

But Kelly's attorney questions why the ordinance is only enforced in the business district and said he knows of no report of any homeless person getting sick or dying from rummaging for discarded food.

"If that were true, why isn't this health measure applied throughout the Houston area? What's happening is that the central business area is using their influence to drive people out of the area," said Randall Kallinen of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

 McClelland said his officers first try to warn people about going through garbage cans. If they persist after the warning, they will be cited and, in some cases, taken to jail, according to the police chief.

Kelly is scheduled to appear in court next month.


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