James Simpson worries that if he’s charged with violating Fort Worth’s new camping ordinance he won’t be able to afford the possible $500 fine.
From a wheelchair in the back of the Fort Worth City Council Chamber, Simpson, who has been in and out of housing for more than two years, said he understood why some people are concerned about homeless camps, but he said supportive housing in the city didn’t always work, so people like him turn to living outside.
“Some of us are scared of shelters,” he said. “That’s why we hide out in the woods.”
Simpson spoke just before the city council approved changing the city’s ordinance to make it easier for police and code compliance officers to crack down on camps on private property. Though the vote was unanimous, Councilwoman Ann Zadeh said afterward she voted in favor by mistake. The new code also impacts those living in vehicles, which Zadeh does not support.
The tweak requires anyone camping on private property to have written permission from the property owner. If not they could be fined up to $500, but property owners wouldn’t necessarily face legal action.
The change is needed, proponents say, in order to give officers authority to remove potentially dangerous camps but also help them steer those facing homeless toward help. Opponents argue the new code criminalizes homelessness without providing alternatives to camping.
Camps are especially common in east Fort Worth.
Several east Fort Worth residents spoke Tuesday, saying the camps spark concern over public health and safety because human waste, garbage and the likelihood of drug and alcohol use. They also voiced concern over property value and fire hazards.
Cindy Boling, president of Central Meadowbrook, read a statement from Mike Tansey, a neighbor who returned from a two-week vacation to find a camp on a vacant part of property he owns. In an email to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, he said he faced “financial catastrophe” in the form of thousands of dollars in cleanup costs and possible code compliance violations.
Campers had left human waste, beer and liquor bottles and hypodermic needles, he said. They had also strung electrical cords into the campsite. Tansey said code compliance officers gave him a 10-day notice and threatened him with a $2,000 fine. Neighbors helped him clean up the property in July.
“It’s not about criminalizing homeless, it’s about protecting private property owners,” said Mike Phipps, a Central Meadowbrook resident.
Phipps told the council about a property that had been a longtime problem because of issues contacting the property owners. At one point authorities had learned the owner had died, another owner had been in prison and a later owner was deported, he said.
Under the previous ordinance, 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.
“This protects two groups of people,” said Councilman Cary Moon. “Our property owners and the people who need help.”
He offered an amendment to the ordinance that would bar land owners from providing permission to campers. That motion was struck down.
Since August a special unit of the Fort Worth Police Department has patrolled homeless camps. The small unit is made up of a handful of officers including a homeless liaison and a fire department paramedic, Lt. Amy Ladd said.
When officers investigate a campsite, they first try to determine who owns the land. While visiting the site, officers determine how many people are living there and if they’ve been contacted about housing services. Officers then provide a warning about camping on private property and help coordinate services if needed, Ladd said.
“Nine times out of 10 they move along,” she said.
HOPE Unit officers have not yet written any citations, she said, adding that it would be unlikely many campers would be cited under the new ordinance.
Officers are not required to write citations and court programs like public service can reduce the fine and impact on criminal history reports.
But those opposed to the change say it criminalizes poverty. Jen Sarduy, from the nonprofit Re+Birth Equity Alliance, said the ordinance would force those facing homelessness further from the public eye, making it harder for housing services to find and help them.
She speculated the change would likely be ineffective as campers may return and would likely not be able to pay the $500 fine.
“This deters housing insecure Fort Worth residents from being too visible,” she said. “At its heart this is about our willingness to dehumanize those people who make us feel bad about how much we have and our failure to provide for the most vulnerable.”
But the ordinance could have gone further.
City staff during a work session Tuesday pitched a different, more aggressive ordinance.
Under that change, owners of non-residential property could not allow camping at all, unless the site was zoned for such use like an RV park. Camping on residential property without a clean water source and bathrooms would be banned, but owners of residential property with such facilities could allow camping.
This ordinance also carried harsher fines, up to $2,000, though first-time offenders could not be fined more than $500. Property owners who allowed camping where it is not permitted could also be fined.
Police favored this ordinance because it has “more teeth,” Interim Police Chief Ed Kraus said. By essentially banning all camping on private property it removes the need for written permission, which could easily be forged.
Ultimately, the council backed away from this ordinance, opting instead to assess the situation again in six months.
Zadeh, in an email to the Star-Telegram after the meeting, said thought version passed still went too far toward criminalizing homelessness.
“Penalizing people or families who are so desperate that they are forced to live in their cars is too much,” she said.