The Waxahachie City Council intently listened Tuesday to residents who opposed a proposed ordinance to curb late-night activity in the city parks. Those voices, speaking to unforeseen consequences the mandate could have on the city’s homeless population, won out.
The proposed ordinance would allow a person to camp no more than two weeks during any 30-consecutive-day period without written permission from the parks and recreation department. If violated a person can be fined up to $500. Permits for camping would be free but limited to a pre-set number of days.
The Ellis County Local Homeless Coalition will provide a report to the council at the February meeting.
“Our mission statement is to create a database of resources for homeless people and expand housing options for the homeless in Ellis County. It is a long-range goal,” the coalition's chairperson Melissa Rawlins said. “The very first aspect was to conduct a Point in Time count, which everybody across the state and nation is doing on Jan. 25.”
The coalition is made up of non-profit organizations and individuals who share ideas on how to help local homeless populations. Being a part of the group allows members to qualify for state funding that will aid the homeless in those communities.
The results of the Point in Time (PIT) count will be forwarded to the Texas Housing Network. According to THN website, this number provides the state with insight into a community's homeless population. It also provides a snapshot of what homelessness looks like on a single night in the city.
“The Point in Time count is designed to count sheltered homeless and unsheltered homeless. Sheltered homeless are people living in emergency shelters on the night of the count from midnight to midnight after Wednesday and before Friday,” Rawlins said. “We have simple questions intended to gain some data to share with the state so that the state will understand what the needs are in our community.”
Some of the questions in the survey ask a person where they slept the night before and where they plan to sleep tonight. Other questions will pertain to family situations and if the person is already receiving some sort of aid.
The survey will be conducted through an app that volunteers will have on their smartphones or tablets. Volunteers will be escorted by three police officers that have donated their time.
The PIT count project is still in need of volunteers. People who are interested in volunteering need to be at least 18 years old, have their own smartphone or tablet, their own vehicle, and must be comfortable in respectfully approaching strangers.
Theresa Peel, who is running for Ellis County Precinct 3 Justice of the Peace, addressed the council about her concerns with the proposed ordinance. She told the council that through her experience as an attorney she has represented a homeless person and provided the person a place to stay.
“I read this proposed ordinance and the city can fine up to $500 for any person who wants to camp out overnight in a car. We have one person that sleeps under the steps of the parking garage, and they would be subject to a $500 fine,” Peel said. “In my opinion that is not being a good citizen of the county for us to take a problem that the county has and not addressing the problem to find a solution for our homeless. Instead, let us find them $500 to make them go away.”
Peel asked the council to table the item and consider the people that it might affect.
Resident Ryan Cody shared Peel’s feeling that the ordinance would create a more significant problem rather than a solution.
“We do have a problem. Fining these people is not going to help the problem. It is going to create a larger problem,” Cody said. “We need to figure out what to do to help these people rather than sweeping them under the table.”
Fellow resident Anita Barnes shared her concerns with the council. She stated that in her job at the school district, she sees that homelessness not only affects individuals but families and children.
Barnes noted that this group needs a helping hand.
Melissa Olson told the council the ordinance reflects poorly on the community in "how we treat people."
“Homeless should not be a crime, and that seems inhumane. It is defiantly something in Waxahachie that we should not do. It is not who we are,” Melissa Olson said. “I ask that you not pass this ordinance.”
Resident James Bell shared others concerns, stressing that a positive solution is needed to help this group of people.
Mayor Pro Tem Mark Singleton told the audience that the proposed ordinance was created to curb the destruction of city property currently taking place in the parks. He noted that residents came to the city asking for help.
“Our lake was the only one that was open and we had all these people coming here. They are destroying the park. If you go to Lake Whitney, they have to get a permit," Singleton said. "The homeless problem, I don’t know how to fix that. This is not the genesis of this and that is not our intent. I am trying to figure out how to fix our abuses in our parks."
Singleton stated that the homeless situation is a very complex issue, involving a unique set of people. He noted that he didn't want people to think that the council is closing its eyes to the problem.
Mayor Kevin Strength shared his thoughts about the true intention of the ordinance. He stated the influx of people was also causing problems for emergency vehicles.
“The ambulances and our fire trucks could not get to the park. They (the park visitors) get on Facebook or snap chat and say Waxahachie is wide open,” Strength stated. “They are completely destroying everything. They are playing music, and none of them are from here.”
Council member David Hill asked Police Chief Wade Goolsby how his officers interact with this group.
“I understand their concerns about the homeless and honesty it is a complicated issue. Our approach with the homeless is to try and get them help. Try to find a place for them. Try to get them the assistance they need. Sometimes they are willing to take it and sometimes they are not,” Goolsby said. “There are times where we may need to take some enforcement, but right now we don’t have any ordinance that controls any camping whether it be a homeless person, or whether it is a family that has just decided to spend a week in one of our parks. We have nothing to use to say, ‘no you have to comply.’”
Goolsby stated the department's approach to working with homeless people is with compassion and officers are not going to round people up.
The decision was made by the council to table the item until the Feb. 19 meeting where the Ellis County Local Homeless Coalition will present a report.
If people are interested in joining the coalition or volunteering, Rawlins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The coalition meets at 3 p.m. on second Wednesday of each month at the Housing Authority of Waxahachie’s office located at 208 N. Patrick Street in Waxahachie.