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Austin City Council punts on reinstating rules to limit camping and resting in public

Friday, September 20, 2019 by Andrew Weber, KUT

City Council declined today to revise rules passed in June that rolled back ordinances banning camping, sitting or lying down in public. Council members may take up the measures again next month.

After months of uncertainty on the part of police, the public and the city itself, Council was set to vote on ordinances clarifying where homeless people could camp and rest in public. The revisions would bring the new rules closer to the previous ones, which often resulted in unpaid tickets and arrest warrants, making it harder for people to transition out of homelessness. But that discussion was waylaid after Council members expressed uncertainty and discomfort with the process leading up to the potential vote.

A key facet of the meeting centered on the “phased” enforcement strategy for the ordinances, and how the city could prohibit camping in certain areas, including downtown and West Campus streets, areas at risk of wildfire and near creeks. Council members were also slated to address sidewalk obstructions and whether to ban obstructions altogether or to define a specific clearance allowing people to camp on sidewalks. Expanding those prohibitions would come only after the city found a way to provide more housing opportunities.

Before public input, Council was briefed by Austin Police Department Chief of Staff Troy Gay and Assistant Chief Justin Newsom. The two officials suggested the city clarify camping bans based on how close people are to a doorway or how much sidewalk space they take up, saying it would make the laws easier to enforce, as police wouldn’t have to guess or measure the distance.

“We need an ordinance that’s very clear and defined for our officers,” Gay said. “And looking at the latest ordinance … something that we would like to see is clear distances or clear definitions of borders and streets.”

That issue and other vagaries, including banning camping in areas near creeks and at risk of wildfires, would crop up again after roughly an hour of public input.

After that, Council members began deliberation. Yet one by one, they expressed doubt on whether they could reach a consensus on the dais because there had been so many variations of the proposals in such a short time frame.

Council members Pio Renteria, Alison Alter and Leslie Pool initially expressed trepidation about passing anything Friday. Then Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza suggested Council postpone a vote.

“This has been such a contentious issue and [a] hard issue – emotionally, in a variety of ways – that I just can’t see any of us walking out today feeling good in a tiny way of what change may have occurred,” she said.

Council members Ann Kitchen and Kathie Tovo suggested that Council didn’t necessarily have to hash out its differences on the ordinances, but urged passage of a resolution to establish a temporary shelter on city-owned land to immediately house people camped outside the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless and under Ben White Boulevard between Manchaca Road and Lamar Boulevard.

Earlier this week, Council Member Jimmy Flannigan suggested the city rely on its newly hired homeless strategy officer to iron out the details in the resolution, and he doubled-down on that call Friday. He argued that Council’s reliance on resolutions to affect change and address homelessness wasn’t the right move.

“We need to provide clarity to the ordinances. We need to define that better since the police department has asked us to define it better,” he said. “But to run out right now and pass a resolution, again, when that has been the repeated mistake of some members of this Council for very long time, I don’t think is the right move today.”

Tovo pushed back on that assertion, citing successful initiatives like the city’s Pay for Success program, the redesign of the ARCH and the city’s move to subsidize the Salvation Army’s new shelter for families in East Austin.

“As we talk about some of the strides this city has made, they have come from resolutions. That is our job. We are policymakers,” Tovo said.

Council members decided to continue discussing the resolutions on the agenda, but pushed off a vote, opting to schedule a work session in October to hash out their differences.

The city’s current rules still ban camping or resting on private property and city parkland, and camping on or obstructing sidewalks in a way that endangers public health or safety. But Council’s June vote was paired with a vote on a new shelter in South Austin – and possibly, shelters in every City Council district – that sparked a citywide discussion over homelessness and how to balance public health and safety.

Photo by Pu Ying Huang for KUT.

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