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Council panel OKs “humanitarian” changes to No Sit/Lie Ordinance

Wednesday, August 18, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

Homeless advocacy groups scored a major victory yesterday, as the Council  Health and Human Services Committee voted unanimously to make changes to the controversial No Sit/No Lie Ordinance. Those changes, if approved by the whole Council, would broaden and clarify the ordinance, allowing for more medical exemptions to the law that prohibits people from sitting or lying in pedestrian rights-of-way in the downtown area.


Last month, advocacy group House the Homeless convinced the committee to delay making a recommendation regarding medical exemptions to the ordinance, despite several powerful stakeholder groups – including the Downtown Austin Alliance, the Downtown Austin Community Court, and Caritas of Austin – speaking out against those exemptions. House the Homeless President Richard Troxell, citing a recent study by Texas RioGrande Legal Aide, said at the time that the city’s current No Sit/No Lie Ordinance could be challenged under the Americans With Disabilities Act.


At yesterday’s meeting Troxell, flanked by 20 or 30 sign-holding supporters, once again argued for 18 medical exemptions to be put into the ordinance. “People with disabilities evidenced by medical authority should be allowed to sit down in response to those disabilities without being subject to any fines for doing so,” he said.


The three-member committee did not speak to those 18 exemptions specifically but did approve a more general motion that would substantially alter the way the ordinance could be enforced.


Council Member Laura Morrison, who made the motion to change the ordinance, said that it is important for the city to make revisions to the ordinance in order to “make sure we are a humanitarian and compassionate city. … People with disabilities who have to sit down because of medical conditions: We have to be a city that allows that.”


Addressing the issue of the 18 desired exemptions, Morrison said the committee’s alterations would help the city “pinpoint” the problems raised by House the Homeless “in an enhanced way because the exemptions raised by House the Homeless would allow anybody to sit down if they had a medical condition” even if they were sitting down for some other reason.


Morrison’s motion instructed the legal department to draft changes and bring them back to the committee for review. Those changes concern three subsections of the ordinance having to do with people to whom the ordinance does not apply.


Currently the ordinance states that people may sit or lie down “because of a medical emergency.” The revised version would state that people can sit or lie down “because of, or to prevent, a medical emergency.”


“Clearly we don’t want people to have to push themselves to the brink before they can sit down,” said Morrison.


The second alteration concerns a section which states that the law does not apply to a person who, “as the result of a disability, uses a wheelchair or similar device to move about.” Worried that the wording of that sentence implies that only people using wheelchairs or similar devices should be considered disabled, the members of the committee voted to clarify that the exemption applies to any person with a disability, as defined by the Americans With Disabilities Act.


Finally, the committee said staff should broaden a section of the ordinance that says that the law does not apply to a person who “is waiting in a line to purchase tickets to or attend a performance or public event.”


Irit Umani, the executive director of the Trinity Center, which assists the homeless, told the committee that some people had received citations while sitting outside the center waiting to get in.


“Clearly we have people waiting in line also for goods and services, for instance to go into the Trinity Center,” Morrison said. “As an equality issue, we need to be able to let people standing in line for any goods and services be able to sit.”


When the committee voted to approve the motion, they were greeted by enthusiastic applause. Troxell seemed particularly pleased, though he told In Fact Daily that he would reserve his final judgment until Council approves the changes and the police begin to implement them.


“It’s a huge victory,” he said. “But the outcome will be based on what happens on the street. It’s always about the street. If the police stop issuing tickets to the disabled, then we’ve won. If they continue to issue tickets to people who are disabled for sitting down, then we’re coming back. It’s that simple.”

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