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.