HOUSTON – The Houston Public Library headquarters in downtown Houston is about to reopen, but one group has been told they will no longer be welcome there.
Since 2005, Houston Food Not Bombs has been providing free meals to the homeless in Library Square four evenings a week.
When the pandemic broke out and the library closed, the group moved the feedings across the street to an area near the reflection pool in the town hall.
Now the group says the city has given them a pre-emptive notice that they will not be able to return to the library site, which is slated to open “in a few weeks,” said Mary Benton, communications director for Mayor Sylvester Turner.
“They said there was concern about the clash between the public and the homeless. The homeless are human too, and they have a right to be in public spaces, just like we, you and everyone else, ”said Shere Dore, homeless advocate and volunteer at Houston Food Not Bombs.
The city plans to relocate the group to property near the Houston Municipal Court on Lubbock Street.
“We have offered to provide shade structures, lighting, sanitary facilities, and reserved parking spaces for volunteers in the nearby Houston Municipal Courthouse parking lot, as well as work with a church that can provide an interior with chairs suitable for catering,” said Benton in a statement to KPRC 2.
Benton said public health concerns, including the spread of COVID-19 and its variants, played a role in the decision.
“The Main Houston Public Library is not a suitable place to continue feeding the homeless. Members of the public, including parents with children, have also expressed reluctance to visit the library because of the feeding program, which draws in large crowds and leaves debris, “Benton wrote.
Houston Food Not Bombs volunteers say the venue is not suitable for the people they serve and vowed to stand their ground.
“We’re not being pushed to a place where the mayor is comfortable,” said Nick Cooper.
Houston City Councilor Michael Kubosh joined the group at a press conference Tuesday afternoon, calling for the city to drop an ordinance prohibiting feeding more than five people at a time in public spaces.
“Let’s reconsider and stop criminalizing feeding the needy in our community,” said Kubosh.
That fight comes as a new state law banning homeless camps on public property goes into effect on September 1st.
Violators could be charged with a Class C misdemeanor and face a fine of up to $ 500.
Paul Bettencourt, a Houston state representative, a co-sponsor of the law, admits that it was primarily aimed at combating Austin’s handling of homeless camps, but said cities across the state would benefit from it.
“That wasn’t a criminalization law. This gives law enforcement a tool to make sure we don’t have large stocks. Startup that is inevitably linked to crime and other problems. They just don’t want homeless people in an unsafe environment, especially when there is free shelter and other alternatives, ”said Bettencourt.
A coalition spokesman for the homeless said the group is waiting to see what impact it will have on their work in Houston but hopes it won’t hinder their efforts.
“We definitely don’t believe in criminalizing homelessness. The real solution to homelessness is not to simply evict or evict people, but to move people into permanent shelter, ”said Catherine Villarreal.
The mayor’s spokesman made the following statement to KPRC 2 about the new law:
“The statewide homeless camp law, aimed at communities like the city of Austin, goes well beyond the public health and safety issues that camps pose. The city of Houston already has a storage ordinance. We see no changes to our existing practices due to state law. Houston continues to lead the way in developing strategies to not only manage the homeless, but also to effectively and holistically solve the problem of camps.
“In a collaborative effort to combat homelessness and prevent the communal spread of COVID-19, the city of Houston and Harris County worked with the Coalition for the Homeless and countless other homeless organizations from The Way Home last year to address COVID-19 to create Homeless Housing Program (CHHP), a $ 65 million two-year plan to house 5,000 homeless people. In the past nine months, the program has permanently housed more than 4,500 people who have become homeless. “
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