Houston officials have habitually enacted laws with the seemingly intentional purpose of targeting the city’s homeless population. The regulations are not only insensitive, but indicate a busybody government in search of problems to fix.

With a new administration, it’s time to begin the discussion of a full review by council.

Houston Charitable Feeding Ordinance 

The ordinance penalizes anyone who chooses to feed five or more homeless people without first acquiring a permit and attending a training class. Though it’s allegedly aimed at reducing littering and loitering, in practical effect it essentially criminalizes charitable giving for those who don’t have the time or resources to obtain government permission. Instead of rewarding and encouraging private charity, Houston chose to punish it by making the process more difficult. 

Removing Food From The Garbage

Not only is it difficult to privately feed the homeless, but Houston has also made it illegal for the homeless to feed themselves. Although unfortunate, many homeless people rely on discarded food, but if caught, they could face a fine. Some say punishment isn’t the intent of this ordinance, but in 2013, Houston police officers ticketed a homeless Navy vet for trying to get a doughnut out of a trash bin in a city park. Instead of enabling waste to be reused to feed the needy, Houston is fining the homeless — a rather curious line of reasoning, considering that someone eating out of a garbage bin is less than likely to pay a municipal fine for doing so.

Houston Civility Ordinance

This ordinance —which started in select areas and spread over time—makes it a crime for any person to sit, lie down, or even put down their personal items on the sidewalk between the hours of 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. It goes without saying this ordinance is selectively enforced and was designed to target the homeless.

Playing Music in Public For Contributions

What is a common practice for homeless people in many major cities is illegal in Houston. This ordinance criminalizes playing music on the street, or other public locations, with the intent of taking up a collection from bystanders, and is punishable by a $500 fine — that is, once again, unlikely to be collected.

Hoarding Ordinance

Though this one doesn’t target the homeless, it is absurd enough to make the list. Passed in 2014, Houston’s law is reportedly the nation’s first big-city hoarding ordinance. While public health was the vague line of reasoning that pushed this ordinance through, it’s bad policy. There is no quantitative definition of hoarding, so, after complaints, police are given the task of determining whether or not a person is hoarding within their own home. If deemed to be “hoarding,” a person can be fined up to $500 a day.

These ordinances are just a few of the reasons to support calls for a citizen-led Charter Review Commission. Councilmembers have suggested a commission to parse through the charter and compile suggestions of obsolete language and unnecessary ordinances to encourage the mayor to repeal.

Instead of targeting the homeless, Houston should be targeting homelessness. It’s no surprise Houston was rated the seventh unfriendliest city to the homeless.

As the free market scholar Milton Friedman famously said, “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.”

While we can speculate as to the intentions of Houston’s lawmakers, the results of their policies are shameful.

When governments create laws that have no tangible positive impact — it’s time for taxpayers to start to question who public officials are actually serving.

Charles Blain

Charles Blain is the president of Urban Reform and Urban Reform Institute. A native of New Jersey, he is based in Houston and writes on municipal finance and other urban issues.


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