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Adler, others on Council want staff to lead on homelessness; DAA says city at ‘tipping point’

Friday, September 27, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

Mayor Steve Adler and City Council members Jimmy Flannigan and Paige Ellis weighed in Wednesday and Thursday with their views that the city manager, leaders from the Austin Police Department and the city’s new homeless strategy officer should determine how to rework city policies concerning homelessness.

In a series of postings on the City Council Message Board, the three gave their follow-up opinions from last Friday’s forum where the public was able to weigh in on new laws passed in June that essentially decriminalized homelessness. That decision has sparked criticism from some residents who believe the city is in effect encouraging homelessness by allowing camping and sitting in many public spaces without penalties.

Adler’s post said there is a need for “ordinance clarification and corrective action following from existing laws” and laid out four areas of special concern for City Manager Spencer Cronk and other city staff to address.

The four areas are: 1) promoting the enforcement of all other laws, such as those banning public urination and defecation, that may be violated by the homeless; 2) enforcing laws to provide safe rights of way and entrances and exits to buildings; 3) enforcing ordinances addressing health and public safety hazards, paying close attention to high-risk areas such as traffic medians; and 4) directing resources toward the crowds in front of the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless with the goal of moving those people off the streets.

The end of Adler’s post seemed to advise other Council members that it would be the wrong move for Council to take the lead in revising homelessness policies.

“If the (City) Manager acted on his own to do as described above, as supported by ordinances and resolutions already passed and as supported in dais conversation, administratively exercising his discretion, there would seem to be less of a need for council deliberation or action on related resolutions or ordinances over the next few weeks and until we can hear back on recommendations for the larger plan,” he wrote.

Flannigan agreed, and said Council should allow Homeless Strategy Officer Lori Pampilo Harris to inhabit her role and help prescribe solutions to find housing for the city’s estimated 2,200 chronically homeless individuals.

“For the core issue addressing homelessness in our city, I still strongly believe that we should not be providing overly specific direction to our new homeless strategy officer,” he wrote. “We let her expertise with the city manager drive the hard work of getting people off our streets and into safer conditions with the direction and funding approved in the Action Plan to End Homelessness, the actions from June, and the budget approved two weeks ago.”

Adler and Council members have heard ongoing debate since June over the new policies, which played a part in Council members Kathie Tovo and Ann Kitchen pushing to reconsider and possibly amend the ordinances. Kitchen, who represents much of South Austin, has had a pointed response from residents in her district because of the decision to open a housing center for up to 100 homeless people just south of Ben White Boulevard.

The Downtown Austin Alliance also weighed in on the debate Thursday, releasing a public statement referencing two recent amicus briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court arguing against city-level laws that allow homeless camping, sitting or resting in public places.

Asked by the Austin Monitor whether DAA has plans to file suit against the city, a spokesperson for the group said, “The Downtown Alliance is not considering suing at this time.”

“We believe our city is at a critical tipping point, and that immediate actions are needed to prevent Austin from following the path to crises already being experienced in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland and Sacramento, as documented thoroughly in the amicus brief,” DAA president and CEO Dewitt Peart said in the statement.

“We in Austin are seeing firsthand what happens when people are permitted to languish in camps for days, weeks, months or years in the name of compassion and civil rights. True compassion and empathy do not involve letting anyone harm themselves or the public, and these documents should be taken as a serious warning to our civic leaders: Let’s not become Los Angeles or Seattle.”

Photo by Emree Weaver for KUT.

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