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Council to postpone vote on camping, panhandling ordinance

Wednesday, June 5, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

As the city puts more resources into shelters and programs to assist those without a place to live, City Council is also considering modifying three often-counterproductive city policies that target homeless people. The policies prohibit camping in public areas, sitting or lying down in portions of downtown and approaching passersby to ask for money.

Council Member Greg Casar brought an ordinance for consideration on Thursday that would amend three sections of city code related to the enforcement of policies that predominantly affect people experiencing homelessness. Due to pushback from the community and concerns raised by other Council members, Casar agreed Tuesday afternoon at the Council work session to postpone a vote and public hearing on the issue until the Council meeting on June 20.

Casar noted that the merit of these policies has been in question by the community since 2017, when the Office of the City Auditor conducted a study of their consequences. The study found that city ordinances banning camping, sitting or lying down in public spaces and panhandling risk further trapping people in homelessness by leading to criminal records or arrest warrants. According to the report, even when citations don’t lead to a criminal record, they also fail as a means to connect individuals with needed resources.

Besides being a question of efficient use of resources and achieving the city’s desired outcomes, Casar said the problem is also about aligning moral values and making sure policies match up with the city’s ethical claims.

“If a person is so poor that they don’t have any money and they have to ask for money to survive – if a person is so poor that they don’t have anywhere to sleep – then I just can’t figure out ethically myself how to say that is a criminal violation,” Casar said.

To counter the variety of unfounded objections to the new ordinance, Casar raised a number of issues with City Attorney Anne Morgan during Tuesday’s work session to verify whether or not the ordinance would have certain intended or unintended consequences that could put the public at risk. Morgan clarified that if Council adopts these specific changes, both city and state policy will still have the same bearing on any aggressive or violent behavior, camping in parks will still be forbidden, and any behavior impeding the ability of others to use public facilities will be subject to legal consequences.

On Monday, James Richardson, a University of Texas law student and member of the nonprofit SafeHorns, warned the Public Safety Commission of the “unconscionable repercussions” the changes could have on students living at and around UT.

Richardson said before the ordinances are changed, the neighborhoods surrounding campus need a safe-zone policy – similar to one at the University of Southern California campus near downtown Los Angeles – to increase police presence, add more lighting and implement no-loitering policies.

The commission approved a resolution in June 2018 requesting that the city manager review the same three city policies on the grounds that they are ineffective and potentially harmful to those attempting to secure housing.

Council Member Ann Kitchen strongly emphasized the need for more housing in the city to solve the problems of homelessness, but Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison highlighted the negative consequences of criminalizing behaviors associated with homelessness, regardless of the availability of other resources or housing.

“Ultimately, the goal is housing,” Harper-Madison said, “but one thing I’d like to say and have everybody remember is, you can’t get housing if you have a warrant.”

The city auditor’s 2017 report on homelessness found that these three city policies were responsible for about 18,000 citations from fiscal years 2014-16. According to information from the Downtown Austin Community Court, individuals failed to appear in court for roughly 90 percent of those citations, leading to an arrest warrant in 72 percent of those instances.

Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza said the wave of opposition to the changes demonstrates a broad misunderstanding of the purpose of the new ordinance. Council Member Jimmy Flannigan also voiced frustration with those exaggerating beyond the facts of the ordinance to push a narrative.

Agreeing that a large part of the conversation is tangential to what is in the ordinance, Mayor Steve Adler proposed holding an “additional briefing opportunity” with stakeholders on Thursday to get everyone’s concerns out in the open for Council and legal staff to address.

Garza proposed opening the conversation to anyone who wants to come, to prevent skewing the dialogue in favor of those opposed to the changes.

Acknowledging the potential benefit of allowing two additional weeks for dialogue, Casar said his goal is to not drag the issue beyond the June 20 meeting.

Photo by Roger Mommaerts (CC BY-SA 2.0): Homeless Austinites gather for a meal at Austin New Church.

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