Although two Killeen City Council members have asked officials to consider creating a no-camping ban on people experiencing homelessness, Texas law prohibits enforcing such an ordinance under a U.S. appellate court ruling.
That is according to San Antonio consultant Robert Marbut Jr., who has conducted a study on homelessness in Killeen, Temple and Bell County and presented his findings twice to the City Council this year, and a Killeen staff report.
A camping ban “attempts to move those experiencing homelessness toward programs and services,” the city report shows. “Enforcement requires an alternative location to camp. If on public property, Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs must approve site.”
In 2019, the Supreme Court declined to review Martin v. Boise after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that “homeless persons cannot be punished for sleeping outside on public property in the absence of adequate alternatives,” according to the National Homelessness Law Center. “The Supreme Court’s decision, issued without comment, means the April 2019 ruling is binding in the 9th Circuit, covering nine states including most of the western states, and carries national influence.”
Councilwoman Jessica Gonzalez and Councilman Ramon Alvarez in October asked the council to place on an agenda an item to discuss adopting an ordinance prohibiting loitering by people experiencing homelessness after members of the Killeen Downtown Merchants Association complained about their presence downtown.
“We’re just trying to figure out the best way to help the police department and property owners keep people off their properties and from camping out at their facilities,” Gonzalez said in October. “Some cities are being told by police to have ‘no trespassing’ signs posted, and some cities have an ordinance. That’s part of the conversation we’re going to have.”
Alvarez, in a request to place the item on a meeting agenda, said some experiencing homelessness are creating problems downtown.
“I was recently contacted by several downtown business owners and members of the Downtown Merchants Association regarding their most recent experience with area homeless persons,” he said. “These experiences ranged from defecation outside their buildings, ongoing harassment and damage to their buildings or private property.”
In the same request, Alvarez said the state’s no-camping ordinance “is too cumbersome and inefficient to enforce (but) the city, as home-rule, can be more stringent than the state so by creating our own ordinance, we can tailor it to our community and help our downtown business owners find relief.”
Under Texas law, cities with populations over 5,000 are given the power of self-government as home-rule and general-law municipalities. Still, Martin v. Boise preempts Killeen from enforcing ordinances “that ban public camping unless enough shelter beds are provided to house homeless persons within (its) jurisdiction,” according to the staff report.
Friends in Crisis, the city’s only homeless shelter, has 78 beds. Marbut has said the number of those experiencing homelessness in Killeen each day is about 200, and another 150 experience homelessness “every year that Fort Hood is here.”
According to a preliminary study conducted through an interlocal agreement between Killeen and Temple city councils, Marbut found that almost 16% of the homeless population in Killeen were born in Bell County. Almost 42% had jobs in Bell County before experiencing homelessness, and nearly 65% started experiencing homelessness in Bell County.
In Killeen, the average age of the homeless is 47.6, and they spend almost 13 years in homelessness. Just over 60% are males and almost 19% are veteran.
On Tuesday, Marbut told City Council members that Killeen, Temple and Bell County would provide funding to build two campuses — one in each city — for those experiencing homelessness. Called Arbor of Hope, the nonprofit organization would include representation from the county and both cities.
“It would have four people from the county, three people from Killeen, three people in Temple and somebody from the agencies, somebody from the (council of governments) and whoever the CEO becomes,” Marbut said. “You would have one on the east side, and then you have the diversion center mid-county, and the Arbor of Hope, essentially, on the west.”
Today, that plan is conceptual and includes moving Friends in Crisis. The Killeen campus would be built on Liberty Street. About 50 such organizations exist in the U.S., Marbut said.
“None of these exist today in the county,” he said. “Everything gets structured around … nine clinical tracks.”
Those are visitor growth, early intervention, males and females experiencing homelessness locally, “intensive” mental-health and substance-use disorder treatment, “sober living,” veterans, “disconnected” former military dependents and long-term supportive care.
Marbut said that Centex ARC, Hilltop Recovery Services and Virtue Recovery Center would be incorporated into the total plan to reduce homelessness.
“The key is to focus on reducing the number of people experiencing homelessness on the street level,” he said. “Under any scenario, basically, you have over 55 percent of the people experiencing homelessness in Killeen that have no prior ties (to the city) whatsoever.”
Calling his second report to the City Council since September “preliminary recommendations,” Marbut said he plans to return in January with a final report.
Meanwhile, city officials recommend enforcing “nuisance violations” and increasing patrols, working with downtown business owners to install cameras and gate areas “with frequent incidents” and discourage trespassing with property owners.
The Texas Tribune reported in August 2021 that three months after Austin voters approved a renewed ban on camping in public spaces through a ballot initiative called Proposition B, the city began enforcing the ordinance — the violation of which is a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a fine up to $500.
Austin’s enforcement push came less than a month before a statewide ban on public encampments went into effect — a law that followed Gov. Greg Abbott’s repeated criticism of Austin’s decision to repeal the city’s camping ban in 2019, the Tribune reported.
The new state law criminalizes public camping and bans cities from adopting policies that prohibit or discourage enforcing any public camping ban. Cities that adopt such ordinances could risk legal action from the state attorney general and possibly lose state grant money, according to the Tribune.