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Citing discrimination, City Council considers changing homelessness ordinances

Thursday, May 30, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

City Council has decided it is time to take a hard look at the city’s policies associated with homelessness and take dramatic action.

The homeless population in Austin is continuing to grow as the city’s population swells. According to the annual study conducted by the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, homelessness increased 5 percent between 2018 and 2019. That was on top of the 5 percent increase that the city experienced from 2017-18.

Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza and Council members Greg Casar, Natasha Harper-Madison and Pio Renteria are bringing forward a resolution at the June 6 Council meeting in an effort to repeal or amend ordinances that target the homeless by prohibiting panhandling, camping and sitting on the sidewalk.

Additionally, Council will be allocating around $8 million in funds to directly address the lack of housing and support services for the homeless.

City code currently prohibits solicitation – or panhandling – completely and criminalizes camping in non-designated areas as well as sitting or lying down on public sidewalks. In the new draft language, solicitation will no longer be explicitly prohibited and camping or sleeping in public places will be an offense only if an individual is “endangering the health or safety of another person” or “making usage of such property unreasonably inconvenient.” Panhandling, while not illegal, will not be permissible if done in an aggressive manner.

Casar said in a statement, “Austin’s service providers, housing advocates, legal advocates, and our public safety officials all agree: We won’t be able to arrest away our city’s homelessness problem. Asking for money, sitting or lying down in public and sleeping in tents are basic requirements of survival, especially while homeless.”

Upper U.S. courts have ruled that, as these actions are necessary for survival, criminalizing them could be considered cruel and unusual punishment, which is illegal under the Eighth Amendment. In a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals case, Martin v. Boise, the court ruled that the city of Boise’s camping ordinance was unconstitutional. Other cities have faced similar lawsuits with the principal argument being that when homeless shelters are full, people experiencing homelessness have no way to comply with the no-camping ordinance, so making camping an offense violates their constitutional rights.

A 2015 Supreme Court ruling has been used successfully to challenge elements of panhandling ordinances in other cities. Many of these same elements are contained within Austin’s panhandling ordinance.

Furthermore, the city auditor demonstrated in 2017 that criminalizing these behaviors results in large expenditures of police resources and longer criminal records for people in need of housing and opportunity, which ultimately expands an individual’s experience with homelessness.

ECHO Executive Director Ann Howard told the Austin Monitor, “Some of the ordinances make it more difficult for some people to secure rental housing.” She explained that removing systematic barriers to housing will help address chronic homelessness while allowing everyone using sidewalks and streets to feel safe. “ECHO clearly supports housing over arrests,” she said.

City Council has repeatedly confirmed its commitment to ending homelessness in Austin and endorsed the city’s Action Plan to End Homelessness last April. Revising city ordinances marks a first big step toward reaching that goal.

Photo by Clay Junell made available through a Creative Commons license.

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