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Sparks fly over proposed changes to camping laws

Friday, June 7, 2019 by Jo Clifton

Representatives of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition and the Downtown Austin Alliance continue to stress that they are working together to end homelessness in Austin. But their conflicting messages to City Council on Thursday about proposed changes to ordinances that target the homeless population were definitely not on the same page.

Council Member Greg Casar and Mayor Steve Adler, along with co-sponsors Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza and Council members Natasha Harper-Madison and Pio Renteria, have proposed changes to the city’s no-camping and no-sit/lie ordinances. For years, advocates for the homeless have said such ordinances do little good and even make it more difficult for people experiencing homelessness to improve their situations.

Essentially, the changes would only make camping illegal if done in a way that endangers the health or safety of another person or makes “rendering impassable the use of public property,” making usage “unreasonably inconvenient or hazardous.” In addition, it is illegal to camp in a city park property under a separate ordinance.

The new ordinance also addresses aggressive confrontation in public places, making such behavior illegal, as it has been. However, panhandling by itself would not be prohibited.

Council members decided during Tuesday’s work session that they would hear from representatives of different groups but not take testimony from the general public or vote on the changes to the ordinance until June 20. Adler stressed that he wanted to hear about advocates’ suggestions for dealing with situations that might prove uncomfortable for the public but did not amount to aggressive behavior, what he called the “third bucket.”

Ann Howard, executive director of ECHO, told Council that they need to make the proposed changes. She later told the Austin Monitor, “I think the changes are movement in the right direction for Austin, Texas. I’m delighted to work for a board of directors that supports these changes unanimously, and the ECHO board of directors does. We have an action plan to end homelessness for Austin. It calls for removing barriers to housing and when the housing market is so tight in Austin, landlords and property managers screen people out for eviction history, for criminal history, and when a search is done any open warrant will boot you out. So you might be asked if you’ve been arrested before and not convicted; you might be asked if you’ve been convicted before, but when a search is done and a warrant exists – that right there, that’s enough in this competitive market for you to not get the apartment.”

Steve Roberts of the Downtown Austin Alliance told Council his position was not adversarial. Last year, he said, there was a similar movement to amend the ordinance. “We read it. The community had problems with it. The city manager arranged for a downtown forum, and what we heard was fear. If you eliminate completely all aggressive solicitation, we heard fear – we heard it from people on the streets, from residents and businesses. So that’s what we dealt with.” Roberts, an attorney, noted that the current statute is unconstitutional but Austin police have recently been careful about enforcement. “The only reason it is still on the books is that police response has changed,” he said.

Roberts also cited the negative impacts of changing similar laws in Seattle, Los Angeles and Portland. He told Council if they did not approach the question of how to deal with non-aggressive behavior still perceived as harmful, “We fear that you’ll start seeing the social media you do not want to see in this town that we’re seeing in Portland, we’re seeing in Seattle. They’re blaming people for being homeless, saying they are turning their cities into cesspools. Where is this anger coming from? It’s the spread of encampments … we are concerned that you’re going to be harming the people living in the streets.”

At that point Adler interrupted him, but Council Member Jimmy Flannigan was louder and angrier and Adler let him take the floor. Flannigan lashed out at Roberts, saying, “To be fair … that fear is coming from your organization. The editorial you and the Crime Commission and the Chamber of Commerce put together is exactly the kind of thing that we’ve shown today is not true.

“I’ve had that conversation with the leader of your organization to make that very point, two days before that editorial went out,” Flannigan continued. “So let’s be very clear about where misinformation is coming from. And I do take offense to you saying things to this Council and wagging your finger in our face saying that we haven’t read the law. I guarantee you, we have read the law and there are some serious issues we’re going to work out. That’s why it is being postponed for two weeks. I really hope that we can continue this in a very respectful manner.”

Flannigan left the dais shortly after that statement.

According to that editorial, published in the Austin American-Statesman on Tuesday and written by members of the DAA, the Greater Austin Crime Commission and the Austin Chamber of Commerce, “If the ordinances are repealed and narrowed, it will no longer be a violation to sleep or camp anywhere in public, or for a person to curse, scream or touch you, block your passage or follow you while asking for money. We do not believe this will lead to an Austin where all people feel safe. Like other cities where these ordinances have been removed, we will quickly see an erosion of public safety and an increase in life-threatening health concerns for the homeless and broader community.”

Yet that has not been the case.

At the end of the discussion, Casar took great pains to point out the inaccuracies in the op-ed.

“Everybody’s intent here is the same on these points. Folks asked whether or not this would allow people to be frighteningly accosted. The fact of the matter is nobody here intends to change that and everybody has been clear that what was posted wouldn’t change that in any way,” Casar said, adding that Adler’s proposed changes would make it even more clear that it’s illegal to accost someone in a frightening manner. “The same thing applies to people being able to do whatever they wanted in parks: That isn’t true. That a person would now be allowed to curse or scream or touch you or block your passage or follow you threateningly – that is written in the editorial,” but it is not true.

He also disputed the claim in this week’s Statesman editorial that the new ordinance would scrap prohibitions on aggressive activity and would allow for people to be followed at ATMs. None of that is true, he said.

However, the changes to the ordinance do not change the fact that it is still illegal to sleep in one’s car. At one point, Casar said he was once contemplating a career as a teacher, and his favorite student came to school in the same car that she slept in. That’s true of any number of AISD students, he said, and it is just not right, indicating that’s an area he will be working on.

Photo by Emree Weaver and Martin do Nascimento/KUT.

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