City, homeless wait in limbo for an encampment ruling

Tuesday, 05 December 2017, 12:21:48 AM. City workers have finally finished the abatement of a homeless encampment in Midtown, an area the Houston Health Department had declared a public health nuisance for the second time in October. While the city's anti-encampment ordinance remains tied up in court, just about everything at the sprawling tent city remains in limbo.

City workers have finally finished a "deep cleansing" of a homeless encampment in Midtown, an area the Houston Health Department had declared a public health nuisance for the second time in October.

What could have been a one-day project stretched into a 15-day battle of wills between the city, which was required to finish cleaning, and a lone holdout who wouldn't move his belongings.

While the city's anti-encampment ordinance remains tied up in court, just about everything at the sprawling tent city remains in limbo.

"Nothing's really changed," said Sgt. Steve Wick, who leads the Houston Police Department's homeless outreach team. "Everybody's waiting to see how the lawsuit comes out, and what happens."

The city passed an anti-encampment ordinance in May designed to prevent camps like the one beneath the Interstate 69 bridge in Midtown, but the ACLU of Texas quickly filed an emergency motion to stop it. In August, U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt issued a temporary restraining order to block the city from enforcing the ordinance.

Now both sides are on hold, waiting on a ruling about whether that injunction will remain permanent.

A string of shootings, stabbings and other violence have turned the camp into a trouble spot in the past few months. A homeless man was shot to death in an adjacent parking lot last month.

"We're restricted right now because there's a TRO in place against the encampment ordinance," Wick said - and as long as it's in place, "police don't have the tools" to deal with the camps properly.

Meanwhile, the repeated abatement of the Midtown camp illustrates the cyclic nature of the city's stopgap solutions.

The health department first declared the camp a public health nuisance in August, and city workers cleaned it up. The trash piles and waste piles had returned by mid-October, leading the health department to require another abatement.

That cleanup started Nov. 15, when a team of city workers arrived at dawn to power-wash the area and remove piles of trash and human waste.

Most camp residents agreed to temporarily move their 100-odd tents to make way for the cleanup, but one man – Trampus Edwards, 50 – refused to move his property, which includes a treadmill, a rug, an office chair, a grill, a putting green and two dogs.

Just before Thanksgiving, the city filed a motion that pointed to the camp's lone holdout as the reason the health department couldn't declare the camp fully abated. But police couldn't force Edwards to move because of the restraining order.

Edwards, who held out for two weeks, has now voluntarily complied with demands, police say, and the camp has been abated completely. But that doesn't solve the neighborhood's problems.

Meanwhile, the space under the bridge has started filling with trash and excrement all over again.

Shere Dore, an advocate for the homeless who drops by the Midtown camp a few times a week, was a primary witness in the ACLU's lawsuit against the city. She says the city's hands aren't tied at all.

The restraining order on the ordinance, she said, merely dictates whether people can sleep in tents. It doesn't keep the city from dealing with crime or trash.

"A homeless person committing a crime, you've got to deal with it," she said. "Any criminal element, anybody who commits real crimes in the area, I have no problem with the cops coming in."

Until there's a ruling, Wick said, "it's going to be more of the same" in the city's homeless camps, including the one in Midtown.

"We've had a couple of murders down there, shootings, stabbings," he said. "It's not a good environment, and it's not going to get better until the issues are taken care of."

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