A proposed change to Fort Worth’s camping ordinance would require those living on vacant lots to have written permission from property owners. Without out it, they could face a $500 fine.
Proponents say this will help police officers monitor homeless camps, especially on the city’s east side. But opponents say it criminalizes being homeless and ignores a broader problem. The City Council was expected to vote on the change Sept. 10, but postponed the matter until Tuesday.
Councilwoman Gyna Bivens said the problem is widespread across east Fort Worth, and the city’s hands are tied when it comes to cleaning up camps on private property. The goal is to not criminalize homelessness, she said, but to help prevent property owners from having to clean up large camps.
“They need help, but that help is not found on someone else’s property,” Bivens said. “It’s found with the many organizations set up to help people get into a sustainable life.”
Currently, police or code compliance officers cannot ask a person camping on private property to move without first contacting the owner. This can be difficult, city employees said, because vacant properties often have absentee owners or are controlled by corporations that can be hard to reach.
In the meantime, large camps pop up on vacant land, creating health and safety concerns and costing hundreds of dollars to clean up, said Cindy Boling, president of Central Meadowbrook. Neighborhoods like hers requested the city change its policy.
What started as a chair under a tree near East Lancaster and Riverside Drive ballooned into a large camp, Boling said.
In another case, Mike Tansey returned from a two week vacation to find a camp on a vacant part of property he owns. In an email, he said he faced “financial catastrophe” in the form of thousands of dollars in cleanup costs and possible code compliance violations. Neighbors helped him clean up the property in July.
“I sympathize with those who are in need and may be homeless through no fault of there own,” Boling said. “But this is vandalism.”
Longtime homeless outreach volunteer Cindy Griffith said she understood concerns about camps, calling them “unsanitary and unsafe.” But the proposed ordinance is not a solution, she said.
Police officers will be allowed to fine anyone camping without written permission up to $500, though city legal staff said officers are not required to write a ticket. Griffith said a fine for homelessness was illogical as most people would not be able to pay it. The rule is unclear if jail time would result from unpaid fines.
“What are they going to do when they get out of jail?” she asked. “It’s going to be much harder to find a job with a criminal record.”
Those facing homelessness already have barriers, from finding food and getting a shower to fighting addiction and mental health issues. This ordinance doesn’t address those issues, she said, and it doesn’t make it clear where campers would go.
Griffith, who volunteers with Union Gospel Mission and has ministered in homeless camps through the Southside Christian Church, said the city should take more time to consider the ordinance and coordinate with the dozens of nonprofits that help those facing homelessness.
“Tying to make law against homelessness, which is what this looks like, that doesn’t help anyone,” she said. “There are other solutions out there.”