Experts say the city’s lawsuit, filed this month against a man who allowed a homeless camp to be developed on his property, is virtually unprecedented.
In a nearly unprecedented move, the city of Amarillo has made good on its threat to take a landowner to court over a homeless encampment on his property. City officials filed the lawsuit this month in state district court against Melvin McEwen, who they say flouted local ordinances by allowing roughly 30 homeless people to camp in tents on his property since October. On February 15, the city sent a letter to McEwen warning him and a local homeless activist to comply with city rules regarding temporary structures and public health, lest the city ask the courts to intervene.
Now that legal proceedings are underway, McEwen stands to owe about $150,000 as of press time — $1,000 a day since November 1 — in addition to the price of hiring an attorney and paying other legal costs. The lawsuit asserts that he violated a zoning rule prohibiting camping on private property for more than three days, along with fire safety and sanitation standards.
Local homeless advocates have said the city’s draconian ordinances prohibiting camping and sleeping in vehicles are part of a national trend to criminalize homelessness. McEwen couldn’t be reached for this story, but camp founder Amanda Brown-Hunter, who leases the land from McEwen for Christ Church Camp of New Beginnings, said she has “bent over backwards” to comply with city ordinances by placing port-a-potties and a handwashing station onsite.
Battles between homeless activists and city officials frequently play out in lawsuits, but it’s exceedingly rare for the government to sue someone for helping the homeless, experts say. “It’s unique from what I’ve seen elsewhere,” said Eric Tars, senior attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. In many cases, cities are pulled into court by advocacy groups challenging laws that place restrictions on the homeless. In May 2017, for example, the ACLU challenged Houston ordinances prohibiting camping and panhandling, rules that “deprive homeless Houstonians of shelter, infringe on their right to free speech and ultimately constitute a criminalization of homelessness itself,” the group wrote.
But there’s little precedent for the type of action that Amarillo is pursuing. The closest example Tars could think of was a case involving Brenda Konkel, a homeless advocate in Madison, Wisconsin, who was threatened with city fines for letting people sleep on her porch. In 2014, after she began to open her porch to those in need, the city accused her of violating a rule that prohibits people from “living outside the dwelling unit.” Konkel has continued to intermittently play host to the homeless and said her latest warning from the city arrived in February.
Even considering her own ongoing feud with Madison officials, Konkel called the city of Amarillo’s actions “a little crazy.”
“When someone’s standing there in the cold and they don’t have a blanket, what are you going to do? You can’t just zone people out of existence,” she said, adding that while she may eventually be forced to pay a fine, she’d be “very surprised” to get hauled into district court.
In the Amarillo lawsuit, filed March 7, the city claims the camp — sometimes referred to as “Tent City” — is a health hazard where open fires are left unattended and rodents and mosquitoes are given ample opportunity to breed. The city writes that it has had “multiple conversations” with McEwen about health concerns, such as improper disposal of wastewater and trash, but that he has refused to make improvements.
“Defendant has failed and refused to bring the subject property into compliance with public health and sanitation standards,” the complaint reads. A city spokesperson, Jesse Patton, told the Observer Tuesday that the city does not comment on pending litigation.
Brown-Hunter said the city’s claims of health hazards on the property are bogus. And as for violating the city’s camping ordinance, Brown-Hunter said the camp has stayed in compliance by virtue of cycling tents between three properties — that way, the same tent won’t be on the same property for more than three days at a time. She is not a defendant in the case.
Located on a vacant lot in an industrial part of Amarillo just northwest of downtown, the camp has drawn the ire of local officials for most of the five months it’s been in operation. It attracts the homeless who don’t fit into the traditional shelter system, either because they lack identification, are unwilling to leave their pets or have previously been banned from shelters. Amarillo Assistant City Manager Kevin Starbuck previously told the Observer that he does not consider the camp to be an “adequate” shelter for those who live there, and as such, the ordinances officials have used to dog Brown-Hunter and McEwen for months are for campers’ own good. “The use of temporary structures is not appropriate and there should be policies in place to get those individuals into shelter systems,” Starbuck said.
In February, tensions between the city and advocates intensified. Officials told organizers they’d need to vacate or face fines of up to $2,000 a day. One activist filed a federal lawsuit against the city, claiming that its actions force the homeless into shelters that may be unsafe. Another activist camped on the lawn of city hall until he was arrested. A small but vocal group of the homeless and their champions has marched through downtown on several occasions. The city’s lawsuit against McEwen is just the latest shot fired in the escalating conflict, but it’s one legal experts didn’t see coming.
“I haven’t heard of this happening before,” said Susanne Pringle, interim executive director of the Texas Fair Defense Project, an advocacy groups that aims to reform the criminal justice system for low-income Texans. Pringle said McEwen might be successful in making a legal argument that Amarillo’s homeless have nowhere else to go, making Tent City a necessity.
Mary Mergler, director of Texas Appleseed’s criminal justice project, echoed Tars’ and Pringle’s surprise. “I haven’t actually heard of a city suing the service providers to try to enforce their own ordinances. It is strange,” Mergler said. “… I think it is a waste of taxpayer money to use these dollars to fight a legal battle against the people who are helping the city’s homelessness.”