The federal lawsuit is the latest in an escalating conflict between the city and local homeless advocates.
An Amarillo homeless advocate has filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging that officials are unlawfully forcing homeless people into shelters against their will. It’s the latest development in an escalating feud between city officials and advocates who oversee a private campground for homeless people.
“Tent City,” as some of the people who live there call it, is located on a vacant lot in an industrial part of Amarillo just northwest of downtown. About 30 people live in the collection of faded tents encircling a 15-foot white cross and fire pit. Unlike some traditional shelters, Christ Church Camp doesn’t require residents to have identification and it doesn’t necessarily bar them for being intoxicated, though drug and alcohol use on site is prohibited.
Since the camp launched in November, officials in the Panhandle city of about 200,000 have dogged camp founder Amanda Brown-Hunter, 45, over bathrooms, hygiene and trash. After addressing officials’ initial concerns, she said the city dug up an ordinance forbidding a temporary structure from remaining on private property for longer than 72 hours at a time. Last week, under threat of a $2,000 fine, Brown-Hunter moved the camp to an adjacent lot, and she figures she’ll be in compliance if she cycles tents among three properties — that way, the same tent won’t be on the same property for more than three days.
On February 27, local advocate Rusty Donelson accused the city in a federal lawsuit of forcing the campers into potentially dangerous environments. His logic is that the city’s actions essentially push the homeless into traditional shelters, one of which was recently the site of a police shooting. Donelson, who is representing himself in the action, says that the people are being denied “equal protection of the laws.”
As Donelson’s complaint points out, a gunman took hostages inside Amarillo’s Faith City Mission Center just last month. Someone was able to wrestle the gun away from the attacker, but then police arrived at the scene and shot the wrong person. “Nobody should be compelled to go into a dangerous environment,” Donelson told the Observer. “We wouldn’t want that for anybody.”
City officials haven’t responded publicly to the lawsuit and did not return calls for comment. Their attorneys have about a month to respond in court.
The suit, filed in federal district court in Amarillo, also claims that traditional shelters can facilitate the spread of “communicable diseases” among the homeless, and that some may be uncomfortable with shelters’ religious holdings (though Christ Church Camp is, as the name implies, rooted in religion itself).
“I think they’re very keenly aware of how far we’re willing to go,” said Brown-Hunter, who added that advocates last week began circulating a petition calling for better treatment of the city’s homeless population, which has been estimated as high as 1,800. They say that laws in Amarillo and other Texas cities essentially criminalize homelessness.
The suit also names as defendants “Undisclosed Catalyst Project Investors.” That is, the investors in a handful of construction projects downtown that are being pursued as part of the city’s $300 million downtown revitalization project. Some advocates suspect that officials are trying to push the people at the camp into shelters because Tent City might clash with the downtown’s new happenin’ vibe. Assistant City Manager Kevin Starbuck brushed the theory aside last week. “There’s no drive to move people out of an area,” he said.
Kip Billips, a formerly homeless man who now is vice president of Christ Church Camp, was arrested on Friday and charged with “obstruction of a passageway/highway” after he pitched a tent near a walkway at City Hall. He was jailed for six hours before his $1,000 bail was posted. On Monday evening, he said he planned to camp on the property’s front lawn “either until we get a law changed or until I run out of money to pay the bail.”