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City memo says Austin could put limits on where homeless people may camp or rest

Monday, August 19, 2019 by Andrew Weber, KUT

Austin will reexamine its new rules governing homelessness, according to a memo released Friday.

The memo sent to City Council on behalf of Austin’s Homelessness Strategy Office says the city could abandon its idea to make space for emergency encampments in every Council district.

The office said after meeting with the Downtown Austin Alliance, the Greater Austin Crime Commission, service providers, public safety officials, and the city’s newly formed Homeless Advisory Committee, it is prepared to place limits on where – and how long – people can camp and sit or lie down in public.

Council voted to scale back rules on those behaviors in June, allowing people to rest or camp in public as long as they didn’t do so on city parkland, completely obstruct a sidewalk or present a public health or safety risk to themselves or others. The decision was met with pushback from Austinites who argued the new rules allowed for more visible encampments throughout the city.

Others argued the scale-back decriminalized people trying to transition out of homelessness.

The memo said the potential limits would “likely focus on geographical areas which have high pedestrian traffic, high automobile traffic, and floodways.” The office went on to say it didn’t expect the limitations would lead to arrests. Before the June rule change, tickets often led to unpaid fines and arrest warrants for homeless Austinites.

“It is not the intent to identify limitations criteria that would result in arrest,” it said. “Rather, it is the goal of the HSO to provide reasonable criteria to ensure the safety of those experiencing homelessness as well as the sheltered public.”

The memo also said the office would not support city-sanctioned areas for public encampments or parking areas in which people could sleep in their cars, citing research and best practices that suggest temporary encampments and parking spaces don’t jibe with the city’s “housing-first” focus, which aims to connect people with case management to transition from a shelter to a home.

The office said it would focus on indoor housing solutions.

“Neither authorized encampments nor parking areas provide housing for people experiencing homelessness,” the memo says. “Rather, each option detracts from the staff resources assigned to addressing this moral imperative.”

“We are still exploring housing-focused shelters in each district but not encampments or parking areas,” city spokesman David Green said.

Mayor Steve Adler said the possible limits are in keeping with a Council vote on a June resolution that directed City Manager Spencer Cronk and the HSO to come up with temporary and long-term solutions to homelessness.

“You know people shouldn’t be sitting, lying or camping around schools or places where children gather,” he said. “We can start building out that list, but we have to recognize that people have to be somewhere, and until we get enough beds, they’re going to show up places.”

The city manager’s office is expected to respond to Council’s resolution by the end of August.

Read the full memo below.

Download (PDF, 237KB)

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Julia Reihs/KUT.

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