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homeless people sleeping on the street

City regulations may create more homelessness

Wednesday, November 15, 2017 by Jo Clifton

City ordinances prohibiting panhandling in certain areas, criminalizing camping in public places, living in a car or tent, or sitting or lying on the sidewalk in parts of downtown are creating barriers that make it more difficult for people to overcome homelessness.

That’s the conclusion of an audit from the Office of the City Auditor that will be presented to the City Council Audit and Finance Committee this morning.

The audit is the first of a series intended to help the city evaluate its efforts to reduce homelessness.

Auditors noted that they gathered data from the Downtown Austin Community Court, which dealt with “about 18,000 citations issued to people for violating the City’s camping, sit/lie, or panhandling ordinances between fiscal year 2014 and fiscal year 2016. The data indicated that for about 90% of the citations, the (defendant) failed to appear in court” and the court issued a warrant in about 72 percent of those types of cases.

As the auditors reported, landlords and employers often require applicants to pass criminal background checks, and an applicant with an active warrant may be disqualified for either a job or an apartment. Even managers of affordable housing may reject applicants based on their criminal history. The audit said, “One location’s written policy stated that applications could be denied for any non-felony conviction within the past 10 years.”

Even after a person has found a job or secured housing, a person with an arrest warrant may be jailed, increasing the risk of the person losing that employment, the auditors noted.

Some proponents of the community court told auditors that they saw the city’s “no sit/no lie” ordinance as “an effective way to connect people experiencing homelessness to services,” because that court offers case management and rehabilitative services.

However, the community court is not able to deal with everyone who might need the services. Auditors observed that the court “maintains a waitlist for its case management services, and prioritizes people based on the number of citations the person has received in the past year. As a result, only people with multiple citations are typically eligible” for the case management services.

In addition, because case management is voluntary, not everyone takes advantage of the program. Of 65 people who received more than 20 citations in Fiscal Year 2013-14, the audit reported, the court estimated that nearly 25 percent of them refused to participate.

Many more people who are arrested appear at municipal court, which reported handling about 6,300 citations for violations of the three ordinances between FY 2013-14 and FY 2015-16.

However, the Austin Police Department has greatly reduced the number of no sit/no lie citations it issues, auditors said, with 63 percent fewer citations issued in FY 2015-16 than in FY 2013-14. “If citations are a method to connect people to services, reducing the number of citations is not an effective way to accomplish this goal,” auditors noted.

All of those citations and warrants cost the city money, as does holding people in the Travis County Jail. According to the audit, the city reimburses Travis County about $6 million per year for jail services, and the downtown community court “frequently uses jail time served as credit towards the fine associated with the citation.”

As an example, in 2015 KUT reported on one homeless man trapped by the interaction of the three ordinances and his inability to pay.

Between FY 2013-14 and FY 2015-16, the downtown community court “credited defendants nearly $600,000 for jail time served.” Auditors did not know at the time they were gathering information and writing the report that Council was getting ready to deal with part of the problem of jailing those who can’t pay.

Last week, Council approved an ordinance giving municipal court judges the authority to waive payment of all or part of a fine if the defendant is indigent or lacks the resources to make payments. The ordinance offers a wide range of factors that a judge may weigh in order to determine if a person is indigent, including if “the defendant is homeless or living in a shelter due to being homeless.”

But still, having the anti-camping and no sit/no lie ordinances on the books could still make the city liable if someone wanted to raise constitutional questions about enforcement against the homeless. Auditors reported that in August, a U.S. district judge in Houston ordered the city to halt enforcement of its camping ordinance because Houston’s emergency shelters were full.

Other cities around the nation have experienced lawsuits based on the same issues.

“Austin’s camping ordinance is similar to Houston’s and emergency shelters in Austin are effectively full most nights of the year,” the audit notes. Also, a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling would seem to indicate that it would not be difficult to overturn Austin’s panhandling ordinance, auditors noted.

The city attorney is currently in the process of reassessing the three ordinances and proposes to report to Council on the matter in April. In addition, Interim Assistant City Manager Sara Hensley is leading a cross-departmental team to look at the ordinances and produce “an overall holistic recommendation for Council to consider for addressing homelessness,” auditors said.

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Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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