Tuesday, July 2, 2019 by Andrew Weber

Austin has new rules on panhandling, camping and resting in public. Here’s what that means.

Three revisions to the city’s rules against panhandling, camping, and sitting or lying down in public went into effect Monday. People have feelings about that, and it’s unclear what impact the rules will have on those experiencing homelessness – or on the officers enforcing city law.


How are these rules different from the old ones?


In a broad sense, city law previously banned people from asking for money aggressively, sitting or lying down and camping in public.

Austin City Council’s new rules soften those old bans, taking out a lot of language that, opponents argued, was unconstitutional and targeted specific, necessary behavior of people who have no place to sleep or need to ask for money.


Does this mean people will be able to panhandle anywhere?


The new rules ban aggressive confrontation – not aggressive panhandling, or solicitation, specifically. However, confronting someone in an aggressive manner – meaning unwanted contact, using offensive language, blocking a person from passing, or following them – is against the law.

The city’s old rules banned any solicitation in certain places, but the new rules adopt a broader definition of “public areas” – meaning a “sidewalk, street, highway, park, parking lot, alleyway, pedestrian way, or the common area of a school, hospital, apartment house, office building, transport facility, or shop.”


Does this mean people will be able to camp in public?


Austin Police Department Asst. Chief Justin Newsom says yes, in some places.

People have never been able to camp on private property, but the new rule on camping only prohibits camping on publicly owned parkland, not just places that meet the city’s definition of a public area. (And, as the Austin American-Statesman points out, at City Hall.)

“However, any public space now that you are completely blocking the ability for someone to move past – say, a sidewalk downtown – that is legal for you to camp on now,” Newsom says, “as long as it’s not endangering someone’s health or safety.”

APD’s new training guidelines say the city didn’t change its definition of “public area,” meaning the scope of where people could camp expanded.

“Camping will generally be permitted in outdoor areas that are accessible to the public, including parking lots, alleyways and sidewalks, among others,” the guidelines say.

As with the old ordinances, officers are required to give a warning before issuing a ticket for camping.


Does this mean people will be able to sit or lie on sidewalks?


Yes and no. As the department’s guidelines say, sidewalks are considered a public area. People may not camp if they are completely blocking a sidewalk or endangering the public health and safety of others. New city law does not explicitly ban sitting or lying down; it bans obstructing a sidewalk.

So, someone has to be completely blocking a path or doorway and “materially endangering the health or safety of another person or of themselves, or they are intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly making impassable or impeding the use of a public area, making use of the area unreasonably inconvenient or hazardous,” the guidelines say.

“If you’re sitting on the sidewalk, up against the wall and there’s five feet of space … people can pass by you, then you’re not breaking the law under the new ordinance,” Newsom said. “Under the old ordinance you were. Because just the very act of sitting on the sidewalk or lying on the sidewalk, that in itself was all that was needed with the previous ordinance.”

The new rules are in line with state law, which bans obstructing sidewalks and public rights of way.


Is this going to change how APD enforces the law?


Yes.

Newsom says that previously, APD recognized enforcing the laws wasn’t necessarily the most productive solution for folks trying to get out of homelessness. The tickets, historically, have largely gone unpaid, and they are a barrier for people trying to find housing. While the department didn’t have a formal policy telling officers not to issue citations, officers used discretion.

“Just naturally over time, officers have reduced the frequency of enforcing those ordinances when people were in locations that we weren’t receiving complaints on … for compassionate reasons,” he said. “You have folks that have nowhere to go. And so, over time, officers – after issuing citations for people camping in the same places over and over and over – eventually just stop enforcing in those locations.”

The new ordinances, he says, give officers a lot more latitude. Before, officers could ask people to get up and move – which was, according to APD, 98 percent effective under the old rules. Now they’ll have to triage if the behavior is a public health or safety issue, then ask someone to move.

“It’s gray. It’s not black and white,” he says. “When things are gray, and an officer can’t definitively say that a person is immediately in danger, then it’s going to be tough to enforce this.”


Will this lead to tent cities?


It could. But arguing that now, Newsom says, is “just speculation.”

“No one has any way of knowing if it’s going to happen, and obviously there are strong opinions on both sides of this conversation. And so, as is typical, when there are strong opinions on a specific topic, it’s not uncommon for people to go to the extreme,” Newsom says. While the new rules allow people to set up tents, that doesn’t mean people necessarily will, he says.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Pu Ying Huang for KUT News.

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