Wednesday, October 16, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

Council finds little common ground on camping ordinance

Still divided over the best way to manage camping in public spaces, City Council will consider an ordinance Thursday that aims to create structure around its policy without reverting to a blanket ban on camping in public.

“We’d rather have people be safe than be in the woods somewhere and we’re trying to move people out,” Mayor Steve Adler explained at Tuesday’s work session. “At the same time our goal is not to make camping in our city such a comfortable thing to do that it makes it harder for us to move people into homes.”

With the proposed ordinance, Council Member Ann Kitchen said she believes she and her co-sponsors, Council members Alison Alter, Kathie Tovo and Leslie Pool, have “struck an appropriate balance.”

The ordinance would ban camping in several popular areas around downtown and near the University of Texas, including Congress Avenue from Oltorf Street to 11th Street; Second Street between Trinity Street and West Avenue; Fifth and Sixth streets between Interstate 35 and Lamar Boulevard; Guadalupe Street between Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and 26th Street; and 24th Street between North Lamar Boulevard and Guadalupe Street.

It would also prohibit camping around creeks or river banks, in the blocks surrounding emergency shelters, on sidewalks, traffic islands and concrete slopes, and in areas with a high wildfire risk.

Kitchen said the restrictions would be accompanied by comprehensive, non-criminal enforcement measures that will involve social service and health care professionals. The enforcement process will have four steps, including a formal warning, leading up to the issuance of a citation.

“I share, and we share, the concerns about criminalization,” Kitchen said. “We are not attempting to recriminalize and I do not think that this does this; this clarifies places within the existing ordinance that was passed in June where it’s not safe to camp.”

Adler pushed for compromise Tuesday, stating his preference that the ordinance be passed on the consent agenda rather than delving into a long discussion over specific issues.

Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza and Council Member Greg Casar, however, strongly expressed discomfort with the ordinance as it is written.

Garza agreed that the ordinance passed on June 20, amending the city’s ban on camping and its no sit/no lie policy, could benefit from clarification, but took issue with the extent of the current proposal. She also took issue with Kitchen’s framing of the ordinance as non-punitive despite the provision for citations to be issued in the event of noncompliance.

Casar said he would be open to minor clarifications on the June ordinance, but is not supportive of these changes, many of which he considered too extensive.

Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison said she was still unsure about many of the proposals and that she would probably end up siding with “the lesser of evils” on Thursday.

Council Member Pio Renteria was generally supportive of the attempt to resolve the camping issues that have been made more visible since June.

“We kind of jumped the gun on the whole thing; we don’t have the shelters and the housing to put these people in yet,” he said. “It’s not going to be a solution overnight; we can reduce and manage our homeless population and then come back and then we’ll start looking at what we can do to keep from giving tickets out to all of these homeless people.”

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan argued for a more moderate approach, stating that, by his interpretation, most of the ordinance policies are already part of or could be inserted into the June ordinance.

Tovo said that the ordinance will help create clarity about city policy while “putting us on record” as being committed to the perspectives and processes outlined in the ordinance.

Considering the various objections and preferences of the Council members, Flannigan proposed working from a new substitute ordinance on Thursday rather than attempting to amend the original, but Kitchen strongly opposed this idea.

“I would like to vote on every single item we have brought forth,” Kitchen said. “I’m happy to entertain as many amendments as people want, and as I said, I’ll work with what people have suggested.”

Kitchen said she would work with her co-sponsors to incorporate amendments to the ordinance, based on comments from other Council members, ahead of Thursday’s meeting. Adler suggested Council members continue to work through issues on Council’s online message board today to save as much time as possible on Thursday.

Council Member Paige Ellis suggested following Kitchen’s plan and working from the proposed ordinance, where there is already considerable agreement. “I don’t want to be here until 4 a.m. again.”

Council members will have a chance to propose their own amendments Thursday if the ordinance doesn’t pass on an initial vote.

Gov. Greg Abbott has openly criticized the city’s new policies, threatening intervention by the state if a camping ban is not reinstated by Nov. 1.

Photo by Danny Ozuna made available through a Creative Commons license.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

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