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Council panel seeks legal advice before changing No Sit/No Lie Ordinance
Friday, July 23, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt
Citing a recent study by Texas RioGrande Legal Aide that found that the city’s current No Sit/No Lie Ordinance could be challenged under the Americans With Disabilities Act, advocacy group House the Homeless convinced a Council subcommittee yesterday to delay making a recommendation regarding medical exemptions to the ordinance.
Thursday’s meeting of the Health and Human Services Committee was a particularly crowded and passionate affair, with at least 20 members of the city’s homeless and homeless-advocacy community cramming into City Hall’s small Boards and Commission Room with signs reading, “Thank you for stopping the abuse!” Their concern was that the committee would follow the advice of city staff and recommend to Council not to include more medical exemptions in the sit/lie ordinance.
Currently, the city only provides a disability exemption to that ordinance for people in wheelchairs. House the Homeless has compiled a list of 18 exemptions they would like to see added, including for people with disability award letters from the Social Security Administration and the U.S. Veterans Administration, mobility impaired bus passes, and a letter of participation in Austin Recovery, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center.
The group would also like to see additional benches – with dividers, so as to prevent people from lying down on them – put in downtown.
On April 8, the City Council passed a resolution directing the city manager to work with homeless advocates and other stakeholders to consider the addition of these exemptions and to explore the feasibility of additional benches in the downtown area and to return to the Health and Human Services Committee with recommendations.
At yesterday’s meeting, Heath and Human Services Department Director David Lurie told the committee that, as the majority of the stakeholders involved in the process, including the downtown homeless service agencies, are opposed to adding additional exemptions, staff was recommending the ordinance stand as it is written.
In addition, staff recommended not adding any more benches downtown, as the Great Streets program already includes plans for adding benches in the area, and because downtown homeless service providers generally don’t support providing extra benches outside their facilities because they want to encourage people to come in and use their services.
Before the committee could vote on staff’s recommendations, however, Richard Troxell, president of House the Homeless, raised the specter of the Americans With Disabilities Act and the possibility that the city could be sued under it if it chose to continue to enforce the law without more disability exemptions.
“We believe we are on solid legal ground under the ADA,” Troxell told the committee, flanked by members of the homeless and homeless-advocacy community. “These people are disabled and the city cannot continue to fine them for sitting down in response to their disabilities.”
Troxell said that, according to a survey his group conducted in January, 48 percent of the homeless population suffers “debilitating health problems.” Meanwhile, 472 of the 501 surveyed periodically felt like they needed to sit down and rest, but 94 percent said they were unable to find a bench.
“We have people who are disabled, and who need to sit down as a result of their disabilities, and the city is preventing them from doing that by fining them,” Troxell said. “As it stands, the city could be sued under ADA.”
With representatives from several powerful stakeholder groups – including the Downtown Austin Alliance, the Downtown Austin Community Court, and Caritas of Austin – once again speaking out against changes to the ordinance, Troxell said it was important that his group brought up the possibility of legal action. Without that threat, he said, he believed the committee would have recommended that Council add no exemptions.
“They would have gone forward if we hadn’t raised the specter of the ADA,” he said.
As it stands, the committee voted unanimously, 3-0, on a motion to take no action on the recommendations until city legal staff had time to consider the ordinance and its ADA implications.
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