HOUSTON - A community is fighting to clean up their streets after a senseless killing that shocked the country. Residents are urging the mayor to expand a law already on the books in nearby neighborhoods.
In May, 11-year-old Josue Flores was brutally attacked while walking home from school, allegedly by a homeless man.
People in that area say they’re fed up with the vagrants, drugs, and prostitution in their neighborhood. Now they are asking the city to take a stand so that their families don’t have to live in fear anymore.
Martha Martinez has called the Near Northside neighborhood home for nearly 20 years but says her home feels like anything but a safe space.
"We had an individual that was in our back garage pulling the plants off to get into our garage,” said Martinez.
Martinez says the drug usage and lewd activity is so bad, she won't let her 12-year-old and 10-year-old sons walk outside alone.
“I see things that I should not be able to see at this age,” said Faustino Martinez, Martha’s son. "I'm only 12 years old, and the fact that I can describe some of the stuff that's been going on, it scares me."
The Martinez family, backed by dozens of neighbors wearing T-shirts with their neighborhood’s name, were among more than a dozen residents and business owners who spoke at a public hearing on Wednesday at City Hall.
They urged the mayor and city council to expand its existing "civility ordinance" into the Near Northside.
The law, on the books since 2002 and currently in place in five zones in and around downtown, makes it illegal to sit or lay down on the sidewalk from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Neighbors say shelters and treatment centers in the neighborhood are attracting bad elements, like the homeless man accused of murdering Flores.
However, Marilyn Brown, President/CEO of the Coalition for the Homeless, warned council members against criminalizing homelessness and losing out on millions of federal dollars that have helped get thousands of people off the streets and back on their feet.
"Maybe slow down a bit and figure out which ordinances will address the neighborhood nuisance,” said Brown.
Council members were overall supportive of the expansion idea, but raised a few concerns including the “piecemeal” nature in which the law is being applied.
"I like the ordinance,” said Greg Travis, Council Member District G. “I think it should be established citywide."
Karla Cisneros, Council Member District H, whose district includes the Near Northside, pointed out that the expansion area does not include Flores’ home or the spot where he was murdered.
Jack Christie, Council Member At-Large Position 5, also questioned the loophole that allows those on the sidewalk to simply get up, move to the nearby grass, and sit right back down, with no penalty.
Mayor Sylvester Turner expressed concern that the expansion could put more strain on a 5,200-officer police force, which would not bring in additional officers for the effort, already stretched thin.
"Homelessness is a much more complicated issue than calling on HPD to issue a citation,” said Mayor Turner.
However, many living in the neighborhood say it's a step that will, and must make a difference.
"I will be here every single council meeting,” said Martha Martinez. “Get this passed, get this done. We need this."
Breaking the ordinance results in a Class C misdemeanor, similar to getting a traffic ticket. Police officials told council members that there are for things like medical emergencies or if you're waiting for transportation.
They also said they will give anyone violating the ordinance a warning first and if the person is homeless, they will try to connect them to resources.
Police officials told council members they give out between 2,000 to 3,000 tickets each year in the other five zones covered by the ordinance.
No vote was taken after the public hearing. Mayor Turner says council could take up a vote on the ordinance expansion in a week or two.