By Mike Gast
A bill that would target homeless “campers” in Texas could have unintended yet far-reaching impacts on RVers looking for a quick overnight stop in the Lone Star State.
Texas Senate Bill 987 is working its way through the Texas Legislature in Austin. As written, the bill would essentially prohibit all camping in “public spaces.” A violation would be charged as a Class C misdemeanor. The bill was introduced by Republican Senator Dawn Buckingham of Lakeway, just outside of Austin.
This bill also restricts local governments from taking any actions to prohibit the enforcement of the new law. The bill defines camping as any attempt to temporarily reside in a place with shelter. Shelter is also defined as a tent, tarp, lean-to, sleeping bag, bedroll, blankets, or “any form of shelter” other than the clothes on your back.
The “other forms of shelter” provision could be loosely viewed as any form of recreational vehicle. It could theoretically be used as an enforcement tool to limit or restrict overnight RV parking in “public spaces.” Those could include Walmart parking lots or other business lots that currently allow overnight RV stays. Businesses such as Walmart do operate on their own private property. However, their parking lots are subject to law enforcement jurisdiction when problems occur. Therefore they could be defined as “public spaces.”
Intent of the law is to curtail homeless residents living on the streets
No doubt, the intent of the law is to curtail the growing number of homeless residents living on the streets and parks in Texas. The potential effect on RVers aside, the law is also concerning in that it attempts to address the longstanding and growing homeless problem in that state through the use of fines and possible jail time. It doesn’t provide any additional options for homeless Texans.
During an April 12 hearing on the bill, Senator Paul Bettencourt, chair of the Senate Local Government Committee, criticized Austin’s homeless strategy officer who had testified against the bill.
Austin’s homeless policy has flunked
“This (Austin’s homeless) policy has flunked and failed flat on its face and we’ve got thousands of people at risk in this county and this town as a result, so why are we defending it at all?” Bettencourt said. “The City of Austin has defaulted on any possibility of leadership on this for two years.”
Dianna Grey, the City of Austin’s homeless strategy officer, told lawmakers she’d be happy to help them come up with a bill that is more suitable to the City’s current situation.
“I understand the impulse but thinking that criminalizing unsheltered homelessness will make it go away is simply wishful thinking,” Grey said. “Where are they going to go?”
Austin voters will also be asked in May to decide if they want to reinstate a city order regarding a public camping ban and panhandling. Senate Bill 987 appears to be an attempt to expand a homeless camping ban statewide.
No state or local official in Texas has said Senate Bill 987 would be used to ban RVers from overnight parking where it is currently allowed. However, the bill’s ambiguous language leaves open that possibility. If passed, the new Texas law would go into effect September 1, 2021.
To view the full text of Texas Senate Bill 987, click here.
Another similar measure regarding overnight RV parking
Texas isn’t the only place passing laws to criminalize camping on public property. The Auburn, Washington, City Council passed a new law on April 19 regarding this subject. It imposes up to a $1,000 fine and 90 days in jail for someone convicted of violating its new misdemeanor ordinance. Homeless folks can’t be cited, however, if there are no shelter options available for them.
We’ll keep an eye on things as the bill works its way through the Texas Legislature. We’ll keep you apprised of developments in Texas and all other areas.