Edyie and Dan Van Deusen said they have lived on and off the streets for about 30 years.
“We are what you’d call a definite example of being chronically homeless,” Edyie Van Deusen, 53, said.
The couple said they have lived in Victoria for about five years, a move they made after leaving Denver to head somewhere warm. The two live in a tent with their dog, Lucy.
The Van Deusens camp on private property with direct permission from the private property owner. They said they have been on the private property for about eight months.
“Before, we were like other homeless people here, camping in different places around,” Dan Van Deusen, 54, said. “We’re concerned (about) what’s going to happen now with all of the talk at City Council, how an ordinance might affect us.”
Camping in public places in the city of Victoria is legal, but that soon may change. Victoria City Council on Tuesday is scheduled to hear a first reading of an ordinance that would prohibit camping in public places.
“I don’t know what’s gonna happen, but I know it’s gonna make the situation homeless people are in here even harder,” Edyie Van Deusen said.
Thomas Gwosdz, the city’s attorney, gave a presentation to the Victoria City Council on July 16 about the legalities of an anti-camping ordinance. The discussion came after Councilman Dr. Andrew Young described recent issues about people camping on public properties and in city rights of way.
Currently, the city can enforce the rules regarding being in parks or cemeteries after hours without a permit as well as urinating and defecating in public. But there is no ordinance that addresses camping in public places.
During his presentation, Gwosdz said essentially, the city of Victoria can regulate public camping with an ordinance as long as one of these things is true: there are adequate beds available in homeless shelters for all homeless individuals to stay or there are alternative public property locations where people are allowed to camp, such as a designated park.
The rules regarding private property would not change with an ordinance. A private property owner has direct control over their property, Gwosdz said during the meeting: “If you don’t want Joe Bob sleeping in your front yard, you can tell Joe Bob to leave.”
Gwosdz told the council some acts qualify as “status crimes” or “conduct crimes” and the distinction is helpful to understand boundaries for communities considering creating anti-camping ordinances.
Gwosdz also told the council about four cases during which someone was arrested for violating an anti-camping ordinance and appealed the case. He said in each instance, the courts analyzed the case with the “status versus conduct crime” analysis, and all four courts shot down the ordinance, declaring it unconstitutional, and removed the violation.
“Homelessness, in the minds of those courts, is a status, as is sleeping,” he said. “So if you’re banning those two things together, it’s a status crime.”
However, Gwosdz said, the “big loophole” to remember is that in each of those cases, the rulings were made because the plaintiffs did not have a single place where they could be. If they could have slept in their homes, then it would have been a choice and could be criminalized.
Gwosdz referenced cities including Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Corpus Christi that have either ensured they have beds in shelters available, such as through the creation of major homeless shelters, or have designated public spaces where camping is lawful to coincide with their ordinances regulating camping. For example, Gwosdz said, the city of Dallas prohibits sleeping in any public place and is currently investing in a multimillion-dollar homeless shelter to ensure beds are available.
Young asked why Gwosdz would compare Victoria to these major cities as Victoria operates on a much smaller scale.
“We don’t have a tax base that can afford a $100 million homeless shelter,” Young said. “That sounds very nice, but that’s not us.”
Regarding designating a space within the city where camping is allowed on public property, Young asked the Council whether anyone wanted a public camping place in their district, to which no one raised their hand.
At the meeting, multiple residents said they were in support of an ordinance to prevent people from camping in their neighborhoods.
Victoria resident Kathleen Edwards told the Council about a homeless woman who camps in her neighborhood and who she said has “hijacked a once-beautiful, serene spot in our community.”
She said the historic neighborhood is now “marked with feces and a roaming homeless person who camps out in the open, visible for all to see, near several for-sale signs throughout surrounding blocks.”
Kim Pickens, a longtime homeless advocate in the community, said during the meeting that “the irony of people complaining is that they’re only complaining about what they see.”
“They see one person and they feel annoyed or sad or burdened, but there are probably half a dozen others hiding out there also in need of shelter because they don’t want to run into these problems,” she said.
Pickens said that as far as emergency shelters, for males or females, “we are seriously lacking as a community.”
The Salvation Army operates the only emergency shelter for men, which was closed for nearly two years after it was hit with extensive damage from Hurricane Harvey.
A slow repair process and hiring issues delayed the reopening, but the shelter had a soft opening July 29. As of Friday, 10 men were staying at the shelter, said Capt. Kenny Jones, commanding officer of the Salvation Army.
Mid-Coast Family Services has a shelter, but the majority of the time it is “110% full of domestic violence victims” and has no room for the homeless, Pickens said during the council meeting.
Some council members expressed their desire for an ordinance that looks similar to the camping ordinance in Sugar Land. The ordinance being presented by Gwosdz on Tuesday, which can be found in the meeting agenda, states it is an offense for any person to camp in a public place.
The ordinance defines a public place as “an outdoor area to which the public has access and includes, but is not limited to, streets; highways; parks; parking lots; alleyways; pedestrian ways; and the common areas of schools, hospitals, apartment houses, office buildings, transport facilities and shops.”
Camping, according to the ordinance, is defined as using a public place for living accommodation purposes such as, but not limited to, storing of clothing, food, beverages, or other personal belongings; sleeping or lying in or on a cot, blanket, sleeping bag or similar sleeping equipment; using any tent, shelter or other structure, furniture, refuse or vehicle for living accommodation; making a campfire; or carrying on cooking activities.
Doug Adolph, Sugar Land’s city spokesman, said the city’s camping ordinance was created solely to address the town square.
“We don’t have restrictions on camping in general, aside from in the town square, though homelessness has never been a big issue in Sugar Land that we’ve needed to address in the first place,” he said.
Edyie and Dan Van Deusen said an ordinance prohibiting public camping, if the city does not ensure there are an adequate number of beds or separate places where people are allowed to camp, will be challenging for Victoria’s homeless.
“I’m at a loss for what we are going to do,” Dan Van Deusen said. “It’ll come down to hiding, finding a spot where you’re not noticed.”
“It makes you feel like a criminal,” Edyie Van Deusen added. “They’re criminalizing homelessness doing that.”
Mayor Rawley McCoy at the council meeting in mid-July stressed his desire to have Victoria not just implement an ordinance in an attempt to address the problem but think long-term about finding solutions to help address homelessness at large.
“I just want to make sure we do our due diligence and we come up with something that is as permanent of a solution as we can find,” McCoy said.
McCoy added that the city should look into working with the organizations in the city that already work to help the homeless.
“While these ordinances are being developed, we can look to coalescing the people in our community that are familiar with the subject so we can perhaps develop an alternative that we can live with that won’t cost $100 million,” he said.
City Manager Jesús Garza said after the meeting that it’s important to note the city does work to support homeless shelters and resources and invests some Community Development Block Grant dollars toward supporting homeless advocate groups.
Garza said since the City Council meeting in mid-July, he has been taking time to educate himself on what resources are available for the homeless population in Victoria so he can present accurate information during the conversation at Tuesday’s meeting.
“There is an intent to establish relationships with these organizations so we can maximize opportunities to work together,” he said.
Edyie Van Deusen said she understands some people want to address homelessness, but said she hopes the desire for an ordinance is met with efforts to get the homeless help.
“We understand all that; we just hope they can come up with more of a compromise,” she said. “A compromise so the city is happy but the homeless really get the help they need.”