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Homeless groups face opposition to enlarging no-sit/no-lie exceptions

Thursday, July 22, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

A Council subcommittee can expect a united front today in opposition to expanding exceptions to the city’s no-sitting/no-lying-down ordinance.


Richard Troxell of House the Homeless has lobbied hard to expand exceptions to downtown’s no-sit/no-lie ordinance after his survey of 500 homeless people noted that close to half of them have disabilities that keep them from work.


Troxell created a laundry list of 13 additional exceptions to the ordinance for Council to consider. Most of those exceptions involve the documentation of disabilities, from a mobility impaired bus pass to documentation of hospital care within the last two weeks to a doctor’s note of disability to a letter of participation in Austin Recovery Center, a local drug and alcohol rehabilitation center.


Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez agreed to sponsor a resolution on the issue back in April, noting that health care exemptions were not contemplated in the original ordinance. The resolution directed City Manager Marc Ott to return to City Council’s Health and Human Services with possible recommendations. Ott’s presentation before the subcommittee is scheduled for tomorrow.


In the intervening two months, the Downtown Austin Alliance has firmed up opposition to additional exemptions, stressing that the 2,214 citations issued by police in the last year had given Community Court more than 2,000 opportunities to direct 536 people to engage in various services available through court, such as drug and substance abuse counseling.


“We recognize that the Downtown Community Court is often a gateway to services for many people who are homeless or in need of medical, mental health or substance abuse treatment,” DAA Executive Director Charlie Betts wrote. “This is precisely why this problem-solving court was created more than 10 years ago.”


At last night’s Downtown Commission meeting, DAA Program Director Bill Brice reinforced the downtown organization’s concerns, noting the support of Caritas, among others, in opposition to the additional ordinance exemptions, as well as the proposed placement of additional benches downtown.


The ordinance already allows some amount of discretion for police, Brice said. The additional exemptions would render the ordinance unenforceable, said Brice, quoting the opinion of the Austin Police Department.


“The proposed changes do not allow us to address the needs of people sitting or lying on the sidewalk,” Brice said. “We ask for your consideration keeping this ordinance intact.”


The support of Caritas and the Salvation Army appeared to clinch the deal for the Downtown Commission. Caritas Executive Director Beth Atherton sits on the Downtown Commission and spoke in support of the DAA.


“This is not something that we believe will provide medical assistance in a substantive way,” Atherton said. “It is not a medical alternative to service interventions.”


Additional language, recommended by Joel Sher, suggested supporting the existing city ordinance because amendments would diminish its intent and effectiveness.


Brice said the Downtown Austin Alliance does support a proposal for 350 additional supportive housing units, which would provide transitional single-room occupancy units downtown. Such projects are common in larger cities.


The Downtown Commission supported the DAA proposal on a unanimous vote.

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