Angel Reyna is struggling to find his place in the community.
Reyna, 29, a native of Victoria, has been homeless for about three months. Most days, he can be found at Christ’s Kitchen in high spirits. But because of the city’s new ordinance banning camping in different parts of the city, he is not allowed to sleep where he currently rests his head each night.
“People see us as a nuisance, as someone just taking up space, but people are dealt different cards in life and don’t always have the same resources or same opportunities to get somewhere,” he said. “Sure, to some people the ordinance makes sense, but it causes hardships.”
On Sept. 17, Victoria City Council passed an ordinance aimed at the homeless that prohibits camping in public rights of way near residences, as well as in the city’s designated historic districts, leaving mainly major city thoroughfares the only lawful places to camp.
Despite a divided council and pleas from members of the community to address the problem of homelessness without restricting camping, the ordinance passed in a 5-2 vote, with Mayor Rawley McCoy and Councilwoman Josephine Soliz voting against it.
In the weeks since, some homeless residents and advocates are still struggling to view the ordinance as a positive step for the city.
“It did what we feared. People are being targeted and aren’t being helped,” said homeless advocate Kim Pickens.
Just days after the ordinance was passed, Pickens and Lisa Griffin, the director of homeless programs with Mid-Coast Family Services, said they had homeless people tell them they had already been asked to move. The ordinance went into effect 10 days after the council approved it Sept. 17.
“Anytime they see someone homeless, they basically call the police now, which is what I feared,” Pickens said.
But, Victoria Police Chief J.J. Craig said to his knowledge, the police department had not had any calls or incidents where anyone who is allegedly violating the ordinance has required a police response. He said he doesn’t expect the ordinance to be something that requires a lot of police attention.
Among the pleas to the council to consider addressing homelessness without implementing the ordinance, many people said putting people in jail for camping would cause greater harm than good.
Craig said after the ordinance went into effect, the department conducted in-service training with officers about the ordinance, which it does whenever there is a new law or ordinance in the city, to ensure the officers understand the language of the ordinance and understand their ability to act with discretion.
Craig said he foresees officers addressing each individual instance and in most situations will resolve the situation by advising the person to move elsewhere.
“I encourage them to be problem-solvers, and they know that not every problem is solved by someone going to jail,” he said. “Our officers are pretty mindful of that.”
Previously, city staff passed out a map to show where people would be allowed to camp. The ordinance was amended on Sept. 17, however, the same day it was passed, to clarify the places where camping will not be allowed. What was previously listed as “primarily residential areas” was amended to “the public right of way adjacent to or directly across the street from a single- or multi-family residence or adjacent to or directly across the street from a lot that is adjacent to a single- or multi-family residence.”
A new map reflecting the final ordinance was not created, which City Manager Jesús Garza said in an email is because “the new language is easier to understand and thus did not necessitate the creation of an updated map.”
“The city already has maps that show the historic district so those will be used if needed but otherwise the definition was pretty simply to apply in front or next to a residence,” he said.
When officers advise residents to leave an area that they aren’t allowed to camp, Craig said, they will encourage them to move somewhere else on a case by case basis, but won’t give exact places to go.
“They might say, ‘The ordinance precludes you from camping here, however, if you were over in this area, you would not be in violation,’” he said. “And they will leave it at that. We’re not going to get into the practice of telling exact places to go – more along the lines of where they would be in violation if they were there.”
Craig said if those alternative solutions don’t work – for example, if the resident won’t leave the area despite multiple requests to do so – officers may have to take the person to jail or issue a ticket for violating the ordinance. He said he wants to stress the word “could,” because “there are no automatics here.”
“If we get a chronic situation and (custody) is the only alternative left to solve the problem, then yes, I could see officers having to take that step,” he said. “But certainly I’m encouraging them to utilize what I believe to be good problem-solving skills to solve the issue first.”
Agapito “Pete” Quintero, 72, said he has lived on the streets for the past 13 years. He can often be found at the Victoria Public Library where he translates Scripture to send back to his hometown in Mexico.
He said for now, the ordinance won’t affect him directly because he is temporarily staying at a property with permission. Still, he said, the ordinance will “make people struggle.”
“People couldn’t prepare for this,” he said.
Pickens said there are many people no one sees camping because they are hiding – and they don’t always have the abilities to keep up-to-date with city ordinances. She said banning people from camping in neighborhoods and historic districts will make this already vulnerable community even more vulnerable.
“And they have no way of knowing until a police officer just shows up,” she said.
Griffin said the plan of the Victoria Area Homeless Coalition is to educate the homeless on their legal rights, “so they know where they need to be and can prevent themselves from being a target.”
As Quintero sat at the library and reflected on the ordinance on a recent afternoon, he said despite helping the homeless by giving someone shoes, food or assistance for a day, it is the perception of the public that needs to change.
“The law does not see, the law does not know, the law does not have compassion,” he said. “Only you, only people can love.”