Victoria City Council members are mapping out their positions on an ordinance restricting where homeless people can sleep.
The ordinance, which would make it unlawful to camp in primarily residential areas and historic districts in Victoria, has created heated conversations among many demographics and has left many questioning its effects.
“Personally, as a homeless advocate, the sentiment behind it is still missing the point,” said Kim Pickens. “We’re now looking at putting people under a microscope by creating a situation where we’re basically telling people, ‘You’re only allowed to be here, not here.’”
At the council’s meeting Aug. 20, city staff presented a map that outlines where in the city it would and would not be lawful for people to camp. City Manager Jesús Garza said during a Victoria Economic Development Corp. meeting Tuesday that putting the map together was time-consuming for the city because nothing like it had existed before.
Garza explained that the city, which does not have a zoning ordinance, defines a primarily residential area by looking at one side of a street and seeing whether the use of the side is primarily residential. If so, the whole side of the street is considered primarily residential.
The entire ordinance discussion has been “a very challenging process for the city because the conversation has shifted,” Garza said.
Councilman Andrew Young first raised the conversation at a meeting in mid-July in reaction to complaints about a woman camping in a historic neighborhood. That particular woman’s situation has since been resolved.
Many people in opposition have said during and outside of council meetings that an ordinance isn’t the best way to address homelessness. At their Aug. 20 meeting, council members voted 4-3 to table the ordinance after eight people spoke against it and only one for it. The ordinance is scheduled for another vote Sept. 17.
Young said the ordinance is not designed to be a solution to homelessness but rather is intended to give law enforcement a tool to address complaints of people camping in neighborhoods.
“I think it achieves what some residents had brought forth in regards to public safety and private property concerns,” he said Friday. He added that although most speaking at recent council meetings have been opposed to the ordinance, he has heard an overwhelming amount of support in favor of the ordinance as well.
“We’re talking about camping; we’re talking about private property rights – the narrative has gotten hijacked,” she said. “And now we seem to be talking about solving the mental illness problem for everyone in the country. We seem to be talking about solving the additional problem … We’re talking about private property rights.”
She said she is focused on a taxpayer who owns property and is paying taxes on it, but an individual is camping in the city’s right of way on their property. She doesn’t see it as the city’s role to solve homelessness, she said.
Regarding how the ordinance is enforced, Victoria Police Chief J.J. Craig said at the council’s Sept. 3 meeting that the ordinance will be “much more easily enforceable” than an ordinance prohibiting camping in all public places. He said officers will act with discretion when addressing incidents, so rather than each occurrence automatically leading to someone’s arrest, they will likely advise individuals to relocate so they are not violating the ordinance.
Ginny Stafford, the chief executive officer at Mid-Coast Family Services, said Friday she thinks the ordinance “won’t do what people want it to do.”
Because the ordinance only addresses primarily residential areas and historic districts rather than all public spaces, Stafford said, it won’t be “as damaging” as it could have been. But it won’t adequately address private property rights either, she said.
“In some areas, it will mean people can sleep on one side of the street but not the other, so they won’t really even be out of the public view, which is what was bothersome and started this in the first place,” she said.
Stafford said while the ordinance may not be damaging, “what has been damaging already is the way the ordinance has categorized people experiencing homelessness.” The way people are being categorized into being homeless or not is “prejudice,” she said, because it is “prejudging people and telling them what they can or cannot do.”
“So the ordinance maybe isn’t going to hurt, but the attitude is,” she said.
Pickens, a longtime homeless advocate, shared similar sentiments as Stafford. She said she thinks the council is unrightfully “dividing people” into what they are considering taxpayers versus those who are not.
“I think they’re looking at it in a very specific way, and not looking at the overall picture of what their decisions are doing,” she said. “They are not looking at it, thinking about how this decision will really affect all people who live in Victoria. Homeless people live in Victoria, too, and homeless people contribute and are taxpayers, too.”
Pickens added that having a home shouldn’t give someone “a louder voice” when it comes to addressing issues in the community.
“The main thing to remember is we just have to look at this as every person being affected because it is an economic issue, a human rights issue and it matters how we choose to care about people,” she said. “So who do we care about?”
Young said he thinks it is possible to address the camping issue from a residential, safety standpoint, which he said the ordinance will do, while continuing efforts to address homelessness at a deeper level.
“Homelessness is an issue not only here in Victoria but in Texas and in our country as a whole, and that absolutely needs to be addressed, and I think we need to continue to do our part to address it,” he said. “I think the conversations being had between multiple groups, whether it be the city or other organizations in the community, will ultimately do a lot of good.”