HOUSTON, Texas — A Christian man who frequently assists the homeless in Houston, Texas has filed a legal challenge against the city over an ordinance that he says hinders his work and violates his religious rights.
The Houston Chronicle reports that Phillip Bryant keeps water bottles and canned tuna in his vehicle and gives them to the homeless as he sees them on the street.
“In the Bible, feeding the poor is mentioned repetitively, so certainly someone who would be following the teachings of Jesus Christ would say, ‘I should be feeding the homeless,'” his attorney, Randall Kallinen, said in a statement.
However, Houston has an ordinance in place that requires residents to first obtain permission from property owners, both public and private, if they desire to feed more than five people at the location. Bryant says that the rule serves as a prior restraint on his ability to act “when Christ will compel him to share food.”
“This is an issue that conservatives, moderates and liberals all agree on. The homeless are people,” Kallinen said. “Restricting the right of good Samaritans and the homeless is unconstitutional.”
Mike Blockson, the outreach coordinator at the homeless shelter Covenant House, agrees as he believes his ability to help the homeless on the street has been more difficult since the city passed the rule in 2012. Blockson purposefully travels the streets looking for the homeless three to four times a week.
“We have an agreement from the city to feed the homeless,” he outlined. “Last year, there were certain parts of the city where they told us we can’t feed the homeless, and that’s just sending mixed messages.”
As previously reported, city council members also recently passed an ordinance that bans homeless people from erecting temporary shelters and tents on public property, blocking sidewalks or entrances, or panhandling on the public streets.
Officials state that panhandling poses a public safety threat, and they would prefer to see the homeless be housed in area shelters rather than on the streets.
“The whole notion is to strike a balance between addressing their needs and their concerns and putting them in a better position in their lives, and at the same time the neighborhood concerns in terms of people being in their doorway or blocking the sidewalk,” Mayor Sylvester Turner told the Houston Chronicle.
Turner is seeking to house an estimated 500 chronically homeless citizens by the fall, and is also considering building “low level” shelters under overpasses and on private property. He has additionally asked area landlords to consider providing assistance in instances when they have vacant rental units.
“We are prepared and want to assist people in getting to a better spot in their lives,” he said. “By passing this ordinance, the tents, they’re not allowed, [and] items that won’t fit in a three-by-three-by-three [container are] not allowed, but we are willing and will continue to work to put people in a better place.”
But the move has likewise drawn opposition.
“I see some effort in the way the ordinance is drafted that officers are taking the first step to get people services. It’s a great gesture, but it’s just not enough,” Trisha Trigilio, an attorney with the ACLU of Texas, told the Houston Press. “If there’s not enough beds for people to sleep in, it’s unconstitutional for them to be punished for it.”