Editorials

Fines for homeless camping might seem silly, but Fort Worth can make new approach work

On first glance, the homelessness ordinance that the Fort Worth City Council approved this week looks ill-advised: Anyone who can’t pay rent surely can’t cough up $500 to pay a ticket for camping without a property owner’s permission.

But the fine isn’t the point. The ordinance is a useful tool that will give police leverage in trying to help homeless people access services while protecting private property rights. And City Council members struck the right balance by rejecting, for now, a tougher proposal.

Advocates argue that criminalizing homelessness and poverty isn’t the answer. But neither is allowing for campsites that grow into dirty, dangerous blights because the property owner is absent.

The Fort Worth area’s homeless population has stayed frustratingly constant, hovering around 2,000 in recent annual counts, even while the economy has been strong. And unsightly camps have become a national issue in recent weeks.

Fort Worth police must use the new ticketing power with discretion, so it was encouraging to hear Lt. Amy Ladd tell council members that a special unit patrolling camps has yet to write a citation and probably wouldn’t change their approach under the new ordinance.

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Interim Police Chief Ed Kraus favored a stronger ordinance that would have, in effect, banned camping on non-residential property unless it was specifically zoned for it, along with some residential property. And it would have allowed for larger fines and citations against property owners.

Council members rejected that proposal, though they could always revisit the matter if stricter rules are needed.

Homelessness is a stubborn problem that must be addressed from several angles. In the short term, getting people access to services designed to help them is a must. But it must be paired with ongoing efforts to improve affordable housing and bolster mental health and substance abuse treatment.

Fort Worth’s approach is vastly preferable to what’s happened in Austin, where loosening restrictions on public camping has led to a major backlash that has city leaders reconsidering. With homelessness rising nationwide, cities must tackle the immediate issue of large camps. Outbreaks of typhus and hepatitis A in California show what can happen if they don’t. The issue risks getting bogged down in our national political divide, as the Trump administration looks for ways to intervene in the Golden State’s crisis.

We’re confident it won’t get to that point here. Property owners in east Fort Worth have suffered damage from campsites, and they deserve protection. As long as the city keeps working to help the homeless, not just move them along, the new ordinance can help prevent serious public-health problems.

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