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Ask 2: Why are there growing homeless encampments under various freeways in our area?

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HOUSTONAt KPRC 2, we’re dedicated to keeping Houstonians informed. As part of our new Ask 2 series, the newsroom will answer your questions about all things Houston.

The question: “There are a growing number of illegal, makeshift campsites along I-10 feeder roads and under freeways. Why is this not stopped?”

The answer: This question was submitted by Barbara, and it’s probably something many people in the Houston are curious about, so let’s break down the issue. It’s a complicated one!

First, there is no question that homelessness is a serious concern in our community. The City of Houston has a department, the Mayor’s Office for Homeless Initiatives, dedicated to addressing homeless issues. And, in recent years, the city’s efforts to help people find housing have been, arguably, quite successful.

The city conducts an annual Point-In-Time Homeless Count & Survey, required by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, to track the homeless population. Based on data from these surveys, since 2011 Houston has achieved a 54% reduction in homelessness, which is a significant achievement. Assuming that the number of people living in encampments under freeways is proportional to the overall homeless population, one would assume that the number of encampments is likely shrinking along with the overall homeless population.

That being said, however, there are still homeless people who resort to living in tents under freeways and various other locations around the city. The perception by some that encampments are growing may be due to the fact they are transient, moving from place to place over time. They grow in one area while they shrink in another.

The City of Houston Code of Ordinances, Chapter 21, Article III states that “Encampment in a public place in the city is unlawful." It is a misdemeanor offense punishable by a fine of up to $500. And, according to Section 21-63 of the ordinance, a person can actually be arrested for the violation, but not before a law enforcement officer follows a rigorous protocol prior to arrest:

  • The officer must issue a written warning.
  • The officer must determine whether the person needs emergency medical treatment or social services. If so, the officer must make a reasonable effort “to obtain assistance from the Houston Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team and/or a designated outreach organization to informally evaluate the person’s condition and needs."
  • If, after issuing a written warning and making a concerted effort to get a person help, the officer can arrest a homeless individual if (1) the officer is unable to obtain assistance from the Houston Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team or designated outreach team to help the individual, (2) the homeless person is evaluated and deemed not in need emergency medical care or social services, or (3) the person is evaluated and deemed in need of medical or social services but declines these services.

Even though a provision exists to arrest individuals living in encampments, the language of the ordinance makes it abundantly clear that the goal is not to eliminate encampments by incarcerating homeless people. Rather, the City of Houston’s goal is to humanely treat homelessness at its root cause, which often includes providing for the physical and mental health needs of individuals.

That encampments still exist in Houston underscores the fact that homelessness remains a big concern in our community. And, along with the lack of physical and mental health availability, the lack of affordable housing and the inability to earn a living wage in some sectors of the economy may be contributing factors to the issue. To continue to make strides to end homelessness, we as a community will need to maintain our focus on all of these things.

Barbara, hopefully this helps to answer your “Ask 2” question. It’s a great question with a very complex answer.

Do you have a burning H-Town-related question? Send it our way, and we will try to hunt down an answer.

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