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Camping rules continue to stoke arguments

Thursday, July 11, 2019 by Jo Clifton

City Council’s decision to revise ordinances related to where homeless people may camp, sit or lie down continues to cause controversy in the city, with some claiming the changes are making things worse for everyone, particularly law enforcement.

Mayor Steve Adler has been a major target of ire on the Austin Police Association Facebook page. One poster suggested that the W Hotel, where the mayor lives, has “wonderful” camping sites and restrooms: “Please, try camping at the W Hotel! And be sure to say ‘Hi!’ to the Mayor for me!” (The statement was later removed from Facebook.)

An Austin Police Association post ascribed to an officer with four years in the downtown area command described events following a double shooting on East Sixth Street over the weekend: “Just another night on Dirty 6th! The most appalling part of this was the violently uncooperative crowd around the scene that refused to follow police orders resulting in multiple arrests while two critically injured shooting victims lay on the ground.”

The anonymous Facebook poster continued, “The fact that our hands are getting tied tighter and tighter behind our backs everyday by legislation and ‘activism’ is directly responsible for the increase in violence and criminal behavior on 6th,” implying a connection between the revised camping ordinance and people’s bad behavior.

Adler told the Austin Monitor, “I know that the police union is out communicating. It’s a union. They’re doing their job …. That’s what unions do.” He said while it was unfortunate that the union was putting out misinformation, the community has never been “more aligned to deal with homelessness in our city than it is right now and the overwhelming number” of Austinites “are not falling victim to the scare tactics.”

Holly Kirby, criminal justice programs director for the nonprofit Grassroots Leadership, said via email: “What we are seeing is an organized effort from anti-homeless people to spread fear and misinformation. Austin City Council did not change rules related to harassment, assault, blocking sidewalks, or public safety. What they did do was stop locking people up just for being homeless, and we pushed them to start investing in more shelter and services. We chose to be a city that has compassion for the most vulnerable people in our society. Decriminalizing homelessness is the first step in a long way to make Austin a city that is for all, not just the wealthy and privileged.”

Michael Floyd, a retired minister from the All Saints’ Episcopal Church on West 27th Street, is a spokesman for Austin Interfaith, which strongly supported changes to the ordinances. He told the Monitor, “We respect the fact that the police are dealing with it on the ground, but we deal with it on the ground, too.” He pointed out that his church is one block away from the part of Guadalupe that runs by the University of Texas, and named three other nearby churches dealing with the problems associated with homelessness.

“We deal with the homeless day in and day out and what we see is that arresting folks who are not a threat to public safety and who are not blocking public access is not really accomplishing anything. All it does is move people around, just process them through jail and put them back on the street – they go to a different place. That doesn’t help the problem any, ” he said.

Council Member Greg Casar, who helped push through the ordinance changes, said the rise of misinformation last week was unfortunate. He added, “The community and the City Council have been really focused on protecting people’s basic civil rights. We worked on not jailing people just because they were poor, or just because they were young,” by repealing the juvenile curfew. “I think protecting people’s constitutional rights is an important part of public safety.”

Council members Alison Alter and Kathie Tovo tried to convince their colleagues to pass the revisions to the camping ordinance on first reading only, and to wait until City Manager Spencer Cronk could came back with a list of public spaces in each Council district that would be legal to camp in. However, their colleagues were unwilling to wait, so Alter and Tovo voted against the changes to that particular ordinance.

Tovo said Tuesday that she continues to receive emails about the ordinance on a daily basis and is looking forward to the changes that the city manager may bring to Council in August. She still believes it would have been better to wait until all of the changes had been worked out before changing the ordinance.

The mayor seems to take the criticism coming from various quarters, including from his political opponents, Gov. Greg Abbott and the Travis County Republican Party, with equanimity, reiterating his staunch support for finding solutions to Austin’s homelessness challenge. He wrote about the subject at great length on the City Council Message Board, which includes responses he is sending to constituents concerning the ordinance changes.

Meanwhile, the Downtown Austin Alliance is watching nervously. Bill Brice, vice president for investor relations at the DAA, said members of the organization have been reaching out with their concerns, with many seeking a better understanding of what is and isn’t legal. He said members were seeing increases in the number of people with mattresses “literally right out in front of their homes and businesses … all over downtown.”

Brice added, “We began to see visible increases” in such behavior after the June 20 City Council meeting since homeless campers didn’t wait for the new ordinance to take effect July 1. He said members of his organization hope to work with the city manager to bring forth amendments to the ordinance that Council requested at its June 20 meeting.

Lawyers for the city and advocates for the homeless pointed out that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit declared an identical ordinance in Boise, Idaho, unconstitutional last year. The Monitor contacted Howard Belodoff, the attorney in Boise who represented two homeless men who successfully challenged the law that made it illegal to camp on public property without regard to whether the camper was blocking access or threatening public safety. Belodoff said the city of Boise had decided to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and has until Aug. 31 to file a petition explaining why the court should take the case.

The Travis County Republican Party put out a press release July 3 supporting Gov. Abbott’s call for the Texas Legislature to reverse Council’s decision and claiming that the homeless have been “given more rights than property owners under new camping policy” – a statement Politifact rated as false.

Andy Hogue, who does press relations for the Republican Party, complained that the party was merely quoting what the police had said. Travis County Republican Party Chair Matt Mackowiak said he would amend his press release, but had not done so as of Wednesday afternoon. When the Monitor asked Hogue about it, he said Mackowiak had not asked him to revise the release.

Hogue also questioned whether a person might be able to camp out on the city right of way intended for sidewalks where there is no sidewalk. When asked about that, Adler, who is a property rights attorney, said, “Of course not. The answer is, in the city right now you can’t camp on a sidewalk if you’re creating any kind of public safety risk … or public health hazard, or blocking or impeding” the sidewalk.

The Republican Party press release concluded, “The Travis County Republican Party’s mission is to elect more Republicans in the Austin area and to support the conservative principles of the party.”

Photo by Jo Clifton.

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