Victoria City Council approved on first reading an ordinance to prohibit camping in primarily residential areas and historic districts in the city.

The ordinance, which will come before the council for two more votes, passed 4-1, with Mayor Rawley McCoy voting against it. Council members Josephine Soliz and Mark Loffgren were absent.

At a packed meeting Tuesday, Victoria City Council and numerous members of the public spoke about a proposed anti-camping ordinance to address recent issues about homeless people camping on public property and in city rights of way.

More than 10 members of the public spoke during the hearing about the ordinance, the majority of them in opposition.

Capt. Kenny Jones, of the Salvation Army, told a story about a man who had been in and out of jails, had been to prison, was an addict and an alcoholic and “didn’t have much hope.” His story was about himself prior to coming to the Salvation Army in 2006.

Jones said “this ordinance – not only is it inhumane, it’s not necessary.”

He said the community needs to work together to be able to say “this is what we’ve done to stop the problem, this is what we’ve done to help the folks that need our help instead of just putting them in jail.”

Victoria Police Department Police Chief J.J. Craig said that while the police department will enforce an ordinance, “it is by no means the panacea for solving camping issues.”

Multiple residents suggested different solutions to help address homelessness other than an ordinance. Suggestions included more accessible affordable housing, public restrooms, designated areas where people would be allowed to camp and more support to groups that work with the homeless in the community.

At the request of City Attorney Thomas Gwosdz, the council met in closed session for about 30 minutes so Gwosdz could share his legal opinion with the council before a vote on the ordinance.

City Manager Jesús Garza said he has spent the past few weeks gathering information to better understand the state of homelessness in the city. He said it is important for the public to remember the city does support homeless groups and resources. In the past 10 years, the city has invested about $2.2 million in agencies that play a role to help the homeless.

Council member Andrew Young, who first brought up the issue at a meeting in mid-July, said he thinks the ordinance will “provide a tool for police to do something.”

Gail Hanselka, who said she was speaking on behalf of her mother, who lives in a historic Victoria neighborhood where a woman has been camping, said she thinks the ordinance is necessary.

Hanselka said her mother is “so terrified,” adding when she goes to her mother’s house, she is in fear about what she will see the homeless person doing.

“This ordinance is a good ordinance; it will help the people. It’s not the solution, but please take care of your citizens,” she said.

Mayor Rawley McCoy garnered applause when he said he did not support of the ordinance. He said when considering the effect of the ordinance, he recognizes people will be taken to jail and, in most instances, return to the streets within 24 hours, creating a “revolving door” that does not solve the problem.

McCoy added he is not against an ordinance altogether but thinks the city should spend more time hearing from different groups in the community that work with the homeless to understand the issue.

Council member Jeff Bauknight proposed amending the proposed ordinance, which will return to the Council for second and third readings, to have it address only primarily residential areas and historic districts in Victoria. The original proposed ordinance would have prohibited camping in all public places in Victoria.

Council member Jan Scott also echoed her support of the ordinance. She said her support has “nothing to do” with her desires to solve the homeless problem or problems with the mentally ill, but her support is to protect the taxpayers.

“I think that there’s a balance that we have to strike, and I agree that we have to have something on the books,” she said.

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Morgan Theophil covers local government for the Victoria Advocate. She can be reached at 361-580-6511, or on Twitter

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Local Government Reporter

Morgan Theophil covers local government for the Victoria Advocate. She can be reached at 361-580-6511, or on Twitter.

(1) comment

Jim Cole

Thank you Morgan Theophil and the Victoria Advocate for your thoughtful and balanced coverage of the recently proposed "anti-camping ordinance." I would like to explain my opposition to the ordinance.

This ordinance is not really about camping. The ordinance would make it a crime to sleep on public property. The proposed ordinance is about one homeless person. One. There are over a hundred homeless persons living in our community. Why would one homeless person create the need to rush through a new city ordinance? This homeless person chose the wrong neighborhood. She chose an affluent neighborhood, the Old Victoria neighborhood. My neighborhood. The neighborhood is the home of professionals, doctors, lawyers and a city councilman. Where this homeless person chose to live cannot be separated from this ordinance. Many of my neighbors oppose the ordinance. We understand and appreciate why our neighbors do not want a homeless person living in our neighborhood.

The people that are in favor of this ordinance are good, caring people. Homeless people are unsightly. Having a person living in an area where there are no public sanitary facilities has obvious unpleasant results.

Everyone agrees it is not good to have people living on the streets. We all agree the person should not be living on the street in our neighborhood, or any other neighborhood. We are all sympathetic to the concerns of our neighbors about this homeless person. The disagreement is how to deal with the problem. There are other ways to handle the problem that do not make it a crime to sleep in public areas that are more effective. There are already laws against trespassing on private property, urinating or defecating in public and creating a public nuisance.

Leaders of most of the organizations our community entrust to address homelessness spoke at the meeting in opposition to the ordinance. Speakers included leaders of Mid-Coast Family Services, the Victoria Homeless Coalition and the Salvation Army. These people have special knowledge when it comes to addressing homelessness. A majority of the council chose to ignore these recommendations.

It is widely accepted that most chronically homeless persons deal with mental illness. The person that is the subject of this ordinance, deals with mental illness. Chief of Police Craig warned the council of the problems, and possible legality, of jailing a mentally ill homeless person.

We share a common goal of getting homeless people off the streets. It can be done. Mayor McCoy’s proposal that the council take some time to study the problem and work to solve it together makes sense.

Jim Cole

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