HOUSTON - On Thursday, Mayor Sylvester Turner unveiled his long-awaited plan to tackle homelessness and panhandling in Houston.
The move comes after months of feedback from agencies and residents frustrated with aggressive panhandling and tent cities popping up in their backyards.
During a press conference at City Hall Thursday morning, Mayor Turner said the expansion of The Way Home is at the center of his new plan.
The Way Home is a coordinated housing effort between 100 public and private groups that’s reduced homelessness by 57 percent in five years.
Mayor Turner said another 500 chronically homeless people will be placed in permanent supportive housing within six months.
He also called on apartment owners and landlords with vacant units to help out. An extra 215 shelter beds should come online in August with the completion of the new Star of Hope campus in South Houston.
The mayor's plan also addresses panhandling, which has recently drawn complaints from residents citywide, including Southwest Houston.
"There are actually a lot of people that are not homeless out here that come out to panhandle cause they know the money's really good,” said Jeffrey Allen Lidesay.
Lidesay told KHOU 11 he makes about $20 a day panhandling at the corner of South Post Oak and West Bellfort.
“Those are the ones that are very aggressive and come knocking on the window." said Steven Paletz, Vice President of the Willow Meadows Civic Club who has seen it firsthand.
"Their windows have been banged on or they've been cursed at,” said Paletz. "Our families feel unsafe walking under the underpass or walking to the grocery store because of this issue."
Paletz and his neighbors have been petitioning the mayor to expand the city’s civility ordinance.
The law, which is on the books in several neighborhoods in and around downtown, makes it illegal to sit, lie down, or put bedding or personal possessions on the sidewalk between 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.
"I have gone to many town hall meetings, I have heard them, and I am listening to them,” said Mayor Turner on Thursday.
While the civility ordinance is not part of the mayor’s plan, a new ordinance banning obstruction of roadways is, along with a media campaign urging residents not to give money to panhandlers.
There will also be a six-month-long pilot program to send vans out to panhandlers to connect them to jobs.
"We are prepared to take you to the Texas Workforce Solution,” said Turner. “We will take you."
TxDOT will also be installing "No Camping" signs at freeway underpasses, and the mayor says they’re working to allow the city to access the underpasses for parking and businesses, an idea he got during a trade mission to Mexico City.
Since December, residents of Midtown and Museum District have been complaining about daily crime and lewd behavior from an encampment that has sprung up under the Southwest Freeway near Fannin.
"Defecation on my property, packages being stolen, houses being broken into,” said Kayla Ramsey, a local business owner, who also mentioned car break-ins and aggravated assaults, among other crimes she has seen.
Under the mayor’s plan, a new ordinance will ban tents on public property and give people living there 30 days to find somewhere else to stay, with a newly expanded HPD Homeless Outreach team providing help.
“It'll help everybody involved,” said Ramsey. “I really do like the plan. I hope to see it work out.”
Mayor Turner is asking the community and City Council members to find places in their district that could serve as temporary outdoor shelters to feed those on the streets and give them restrooms.
"You need to crawl before you can walk I guess, and I think that's a good idea for the people out here at Tent City,” said Ramsey.
However, another neighbor told KHOU 11 he believes those locations should have already been determined and says he is frustrated at unfulfilled promises to dismantle the encampment by several different deadlines.
He said he believes the mayor should have acted more quickly on the issue. He’s also concerned that there’s no cost estimate for the overall plan.
Mayor Turner mentioned Housing and Urban Development dollars through both the city and The Way Home agencies, tax increment reinvestment zone money, and endowments from nonprofits as a few of the possible funding sources.
The mayor says the city will continue to urge the state and federal government for more funding to address mental health and substance abuse treatment.
Mayor Turner told KHOU 11 that council members should get drafts of the tent ordinance and roadway obstruction ordinance within the week and could vote as early as March 22.
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