We understand why homeless advocates don’t like the idea by Fort Worth city leaders to squash squatting. A proposed revision to a city ordinance would allow police officers to issue fines with penalties of up to $500 for people staying on private property without permission. That sounds an awful lot like criminalizing homelessness to some people, such as the resident who told city council members last Tuesday, “It’s not right to fine people $500 for existing.”
Other advocates for the homeless said there are better solutions. People who live on the streets face plentiful obstacles already, including hunger, poverty, addiction, and mental health issues. Further burdening them with steep fines – in effect, criminalizing homelessness – makes little sense and will ultimately impede their ability to rehabilitate themselves.
We understand those concerns. Homelessness is heartbreaking. Society relies on big-hearted volunteers, shelter administrators, churches, and city leaders to come up with solutions, and they’ve been trying for decades with varying degrees of success. Supplying a network of day and night shelters, resource centers, missions, and other services, most of them centrally located near East Lancaster Avenue, has helped but has hardly eliminated this city’s homeless population.
Still, revising the city’s ordinance – city council members were discussing the proposal at the time our paper went to press on Tuesday night – sounds like a good idea to us. Most private property owners don’t want people trespassing on their land and establishing camps with all of the refuse and literal crap that go with them. Under the current ordinance, police officers must track down property owners before asking campers to leave. Some property owners are difficult to reach, leaving cops with little leverage when trying to prevent homeless camps for sprouting.
Police need that leverage. It doesn’t mean officers will write citations. Check out this exchange between City Attorney Sarah Fullenwider and City Councilmember Kelly Allen Gray at the meeting last week.
Gray: “So there would not necessarily be a fine involved? It would be up to the discretion of the officer?”
Fullenwider: “It is up to the discretion of the officer.”
That makes it sound as if police will write citations only if campers refuse to move. Sounds fair to us.
City leaders should coordinate closely with nonprofits to come up with a worthwhile ordinance. But homelessness isn’t exactly new. Private property owners and their neighbors shouldn’t have to suffer camps of squatters until the perfect ordinance is imagined. The current ordinance criminalizes the property owner. Cleaning up discarded homeless camps can be expensive and labor intensive and becomes the responsibility of the property owner, not the people who created the trash. Failure to clean up can lead to citations and fines for the person who most likely never wanted the homeless camp there in the first place.