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City code to allow camping, solicitation, sitting in public areas, with conditions

Friday, June 21, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

City Council approved an ordinance early Friday morning amending city code to decriminalize certain behaviors that are often necessary consequences of living in homelessness.

The changes mean that city policies prohibiting sitting, lying down and camping in public areas will only be enforced if an individual is creating a safety issue or intentionally impeding use of public facilities. The prohibition on solicitation, or panhandling, was also repealed, while allowing police to act against any aggressive confrontations, regardless of the content of speech.

The set of amendments have been discussed in public several times before, beginning in 2017 when a city-led study showed that enforcing the existing policies is neither an effective nor ethical way to address an individual’s need for shelter.

Council Member Greg Casar led the push this time, framing the existing policies as morally contradictory to the city’s stated values.

“Our country, our state, and our city have failed people; we’ve failed to provide housing, we’ve failed to provide jobs and health care, so we should not be surprised at the homelessness we see in our community and in communities across the country. But we cannot continue to respond to homelessness with jails.” Casar said, during a rally outside City Hall with the Homes Not Handcuffs coalition prior to the vote.

Following a wave of public dissent and a number of questions from fellow Council members, Casar agreed earlier this month to postpone a vote until the community could have another opportunity to express concerns and study the proposed amendments.

In an attempt to ease the minds of worried residents, Mayor Steve Adler posted an online statement early this week reiterating that the changes are meant to work in conjunction with a handful of city efforts meant to provide “real solutions rather than the ineffective, inefficient and morally tenuous criminalization of an already difficult life situation.”

As part of those broader efforts, Council passed another resolution Thursday directing the city manager to find ways to further assist those living unsheltered with amenities like climate-controlled storage lockers, bathrooms and laundry facilities. That direction also includes identifying areas that may or may not be safe or appropriate for camping and exploring options to collaborate with the University of Texas and surrounding neighborhoods on additional safety measures like improved lighting and emergency call boxes.

Many of the numerous citizens speaking on the item questioned the wisdom of giving that direction and amending the policies at the same time, rather than waiting for the city manager’s plan to inform and prepare for those changes.

Concerned resident Joellen Meyeres urged Council to “develop safe and appropriate areas for camping” prior to adopting the ordinance. “It’s irresponsible to do that without having the plan,” she said.

Julie Fitch, chief operating officer of the Downtown Austin Alliance, also asked Council to wait until the city manager presents the requested solutions on the grounds that the Austin Police Department won’t be prepared to interpret and act on the changes with the amendments as proposed.

It was repeatedly mentioned, however, that there are more people in need of shelter in the city than there are beds available.

David Johnson, speaking in public comment, questioned how the city could morally justify citing people for not sleeping in beds that don’t exist.

With a wide majority of residents signed up in favor of the ordinance, the negative consequences of continuing to criminalize such acts were reiterated many times over several hours of public comment.

With roughly 60 speakers left, all signed up in favor of the ordinance, Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison urged the public with some success to consolidate efforts in order to allow Council to deliberate while community members were still present.

Adler offered an additional carrot around midnight to encourage brevity: “I hate to be a spoiler, but it’s going to pass.”

When it did finally come up for a vote, Council Member Ann Kitchen motioned to split the three amendments into three parts in order to pass each change individually. Prompted by that division, Council Member Alison Alter made a motion to pass the camping ordinance on first reading only.

“I think we need to take steps in this direction, but I don’t think we have it fully baked on the camping part,” she said.

There will always be reasons not to act, Adler countered, but moving the homeless population from place to place is not working.

Alter’s motion failed, prompting Adler to motion to pass it on all three readings.

The amendment to the no-camping ordinance passed 9-2 with Alter and Kathie Tovo opposed, and the other two amendments passed unanimously. The vote included additional language from Casar asking the city manager to present quarterly reports with details such as cause, location, and race and ethnicity related to all notices, citations and arrests made under the ordinance.

APD Chief Brian Manley said the department may require additional staff to retroactively fill in the details of why each individual citation was issued and whether proper notice was given, but agreed to do so as feasible.

Photo by Ryan Thornton.

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