SAN ANTONIO – A state representative is voicing her concerns after the Texas House passed a bill that would make it illegal for those experiencing homelessness to camp in public areas.
If caught, they could face a Class C misdemeanor charge that is punishable by a fine of up to $500, according to House Bill 1925.
Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, District 120 state representative, feels this bill will start a vicious cycle for those already in need.
“If you are homeless, and you don’t have any money, how are you going to pay the fine? If you don’t pay the fine, and you get called to court and don’t show up, now there is a warrant out for your arrest,” Gevin-Hawkins said. “It is horrible.”
She proposed an amendment that was shot down that would allow offices to give warnings to homeless individuals camping in public areas instead of slapping them with a fine.
“Homelessness is caused by several reasons,” she said. “It could be you are down on your luck. It could be mental illness, it could be our veterans out there, it could be our kids that age out of foster care, it could be thrown away children. We have to look at this holistically and not trying to criminalize people.”
Those who support the bill say it’s a humanitarian issue and homeless encampments pose a public safety and health risk.
Gervin-Hawkins said she understands this being a short-term solution, but it will not help the situation in the long run.
“Who wants to drive up and you get ready to go home and see these homeless folks straying in your neighborhood or sleeping on your front porch? I see that as a possible immediate remedy but the reality is, what happens long term? This is a marathon, not a sprint and we have to make the investments and put the time in.”
She said a possible solution may be adding mobile units with resources in these communities.
“We have a mobile unit for many things,” she said. “We have mobile units for vaccines, trainings and more. We need mobile units to go out to these encampments. It is not a one size fits all because everyone is homeless for a different reason. If we had a unit to target a different area, they have to build trust and show they care about that population. I don’t think we have to put a lot of money into it, we just need to connect and bring services to the people rather than wait for them to come to the services.”
There are two other amendments to the bill, including officers passing out a pamphlet of resources to those caught camping in public areas. Another involves giving those who violate the bill community service if they can’t pay the funds.
Gervin-Hawkins said even those need to be looked at closer.
“Say if an officer walks up to a homeless person and hands them a pamphlet of resources,” Gervin-Hawkins said. “Say if Haven for Hope or any other place does not have space for them to stay. If a homeless person tries to get help and can’t, they should not be fined.”
She also believes using law enforcement to issue these citations is a waste of law enforcement resources.
“Instead of dealing with real crimes, potentially domestic violence, sexual assault, or other things like that, they have to deal with a homeless person on the street and say, ‘you can’t sleep here.’ Come on now,” she said.
In the end, she said it will take a better combined effort in order to help the homeless issue instead of adding more problems to the equation.
“We have to be prepared to put in the investment and put in the creative ideas to make sure we make this a reality. To reduce homelessness,” she said. “Will we ever truly eliminate it 100%? No, but we can definitely reduce it.”