Responding to concerns about homeless people camping on private property, the Fort Worth City Council approved an ordinance at its Sept. 17 meeting requiring campers to produce written proof that camping is authorized by the property owner. Violators without permission can be charged with a Class C misdemeanor and assessed a fine of up to $500.
City officials said unauthorized camping creates health and fire hazards and also diminishes property values. Unauthorized camping most frequently occurs on unattended or vacant properties, officials said.
"This ordinance protects businesses and residential property owners. It empowers our police department to remove unauthorized campers from private property, particularly when we are unable to contact the property owner," District 3 Councilman Brian Byrd said.
Currently, notice is required to remove individuals. Officials say this is a problem when police are unable to locate private property owners to determine whether the camping is authorized, or the owner is absent or unwilling to give notice that camping is unauthorized.
"As a homeless person, I could go into your backyard, and police have no right to throw me out without your permission," District 7 Councilman Dennis Shingleton said. "Well, what if you're gone out of town for a month or so and you can't be contacted? We've got a lot of this going on.
"Homeless people are looking for a place to stay, we understand that. There may be other extenuating circumstances we should feel sorry for, but we can't have people ruining others' yards with some of the things they are doing," Shingleton said.
District 4 Councilman Cary Moon noted that of the 35 citizens who spoke in favor of the ordinance or filled out a card stating their support, only one was not from District 4, 5 or 8, where he said there is a real challenge with the issue. Also, of the 18 opposed, only one lives in those districts.
“The goal with the ordinance revision is to deter illegal camping on non-residential properties,” Moon said. “Whether the camper is in a tent on a vacant property or in a car in an abandoned parking lot, this ordinance addresses the public safety and public health that can be associated with illegal camping.
“This ordinance is not about criminalizing homelessness. To help those in need, Fort Worth has great programs for housing, workforce training, and free meals. Our diversion rate of 90% demonstrates the success of our programs. Our goal is to get folks in need off the streets and into the programs where we can help them.”