HOUSTON – The Houston Public Library’s Central branch in downtown Houston will reopen soon, but one group has been told they will no longer be welcome there.
Since 2005, Houston Food Not Bombs has provided free meals to people experiencing homelessness, setting up four nights a week at the library’s plaza.
When the pandemic hit and the library shut down, the group moved the feedings across the street to an area near the reflection pool at City Hall.
Now, the group says the city has preemptively told them they cannot return to the library property, which is set to open “in a couple of weeks,” according to Mary Benton, director of communications for Mayor Sylvester Turner.
“They said there was concern about the public and the homeless colliding. The homeless are people too and they have a right to be out in public space just as much as we do, you do, anybody else does,” said Shere Dore, homeless advocate and volunteer with Houston Food Not Bombs.
The city wants to relocate the group to a property near the Houston Municipal Court on Lubbock street.
“We have offered to provide shade structures, lighting, bathroom facilities and reserved parking for volunteers at the nearby Houston Municipal Courthouse parking lot as well as to work with a church that can provide an indoor facility with chairs adequate for food service,” Benton said in a statement to KPRC 2.
Benton said public health concerns, including the spread of COVID-19 and its variants, played a role in the decision.
“The Main Houston Public Library is not a conducive location to continue feeding homeless individuals. Members of the public, including parents with children, have also expressed a reluctance to visit the library because of the feeding program, which draws a big crowd and leaves behind debris,” Benton wrote.
Volunteers with Houston Food Not Bombs say the courthouse site is not convenient for the people they serve and vowed to stand their ground.
“We will not be pushed off to some place where it’s convenient for the mayor,” Nick Cooper said.
Houston City Councilman Michael Kubosh joined the group at a news conference Tuesday afternoon, advocating for the city to drop an ordinance outlawing feeding more the five people at a time in a public space.
“Let’s revisit this and let’s do away with criminalizing the feeding of the needy in our community,” Kubosh said.
This fight comes as a new state law banning homeless encampments on public property goes into effect on Sept. 1.
Violators could be charged with a Class C misdemeanor and could face a fine of up to $500.
Houston area state representative Paul Bettencourt, a co-sponsor of the bill admits it was drafted largely to target Austin’s handling of homeless camps, but said cities all over the state would benefit.
“This was not a criminalization statute. This gives a tool to law enforcement, to make sure that we don’t have large scale encampments. Startup, which inevitably has crime and other problems associated with it. You just don’t want the homeless in an unsafe environment, especially when there’s free shelters and other alternatives,” Bettencourt said.
A spokesperson for Coalition for the Homeless said the group was waiting to see what impacts it has on their work in Houston, but hoped it would not impede their efforts.
“We definitely do not believe in criminalizing homelessness. The real solution to homelessness is not to simply displace people or to drive people away but instead to put people in permanent housing,” Catherine Villarreal said.
The mayor’s spokesperson issued the following statement to KPRC 2 regarding the new law:
“The statewide homeless encampment law targets municipalities like the City of Austin and goes far beyond addressing the public health and safety issues created by encampments. The City of Houston already has an encampment ordinance. We do not see any changes from our existing practices because of the state law. Houston continues to be at the forefront in developing strategies not just to manage homeless but to solve the problem of encampments effectively and holistically.
“In a joint effort to address homelessness and prevent the communal spread of COVID-19, last year, the City of Houston and Harris County worked with the Coalition for the Homeless and countless other homeless agencies of The Way Home to create the COVID-19 Homeless Housing Program (CHHP), a $65-million two year plan to house 5,000 people experiencing homelessness. In the past nine months, the program has permanently housed more than 4,500 individuals experiencing homelessness.”