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Austin’s homelessness czar steps down a month after her first day

Friday, October 11, 2019 by Andrew Weber, KUT

A month after her first official day on the job, Austin’s homeless strategy officer, Lori Pampilo Harris, is quitting.

In a letter to Austin City Council on Wednesday, Assistant City Manager Rodney Gonzales said Pampilo Harris is transitioning to a role as a consultant, rather than a full-time employee. In a statement Thursday, Pampilo Harris said the transition will allow her to spend more time with her family and that she looks forward to continuing to work with the city.

“This was not a decision I made lightly and I’ve had previous conversations with my immediate supervisor,” she said. “I’m deeply appreciative of their understanding and willingness to work with me in a way that allows me to meet my family obligations and continue the work we’ve started.”

Pampilo Harris’ transition comes at a critical moment. City Council could consider as soon as next week reinstating rules that restrict where people can sit, lie down and camp in public. Council passed city laws rescinding those restrictions in June, and it has caught flak over the past three months from critics who say the city has sacrificed public health and safety in an effort to decriminalize homelessness.

Much of the soul-searching around those rules, their implications and the future of how Austin tackles homelessness have factored in (and leaned on) Pampilo Harris’ cross-departmental leadership. She officially started Sept. 9. Weeks before, some Council members had suggested looking to her for guidance on whether to reinstate the homelessness rules, which more often than not led to unpaid tickets and resulted in arrest warrants.

District 6 Council Member Jimmy Flannigan told KUT he was surprised by Pampilo Harris’ departure, but said he’s glad that she – and other experts – will still be advising Council as it considers how to tackle homelessness.

“Lori still will be in this community as a consultant, apparently, and that’s great,” he said. “We have a lot of experts, and ultimately the members of the City Council are not elected because we are experts in homelessness. We are elected because we understand our communities.”

In an interview with KUT Sept. 26, she said she didn’t plan on telling Council or the Austin Police Department how to proceed; instead, she saw her office focusing its efforts on housing-related proposals.

“I believe the Homeless Strategy Office is not here to direct City Council on how to create laws,” she said. “The Homeless Strategy Office is not here to tell how APD should enforce any laws.”

Council will consider revising – and possibly reinstating – limitations on camping, sitting or lying down in public at its next meeting Oct. 17. Council members could also direct the city manager to immediately find short-term strategies to address homelessness, like setting up a shelter on city-owned land.

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

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