Wednesday, February 3, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

Council likely to pass amended HEAL resolution

City Council is almost certain to adopt an updated version of the HEAL resolution, a measure to address homeless camping around the city. Six Council members now sponsor the item after Council Member Alison Alter added her name Friday in exchange for amendments to the resolution.

The aim of HEAL – the Housing-Focused Homeless Encampment Assistance Link – is to move people  who are camping in unsafe locations into homes and shelters. Once the individuals are housed, the city will clear the sites and Council may reinstate site-specific camping bans.

“I want to emphasize that this resolution upholds the city’s commitment to the decriminalization of homelessness,” said Council Member Ann Kitchen, who wrote the resolution. “But it does recognize that unsheltered camping is really not a sustainable solution for those experiencing homelessness.”

If the resolution passes as anticipated, City Manager Spencer Cronk and Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey will have a month to figure out how to implement the initiative and how to clear campsites without involving policing or issuing citations. Council expects a plan by March 4.

“I really want to emphasize, it is so important that we take some action,” Kitchen said. “The longer we wait, the longer people are going to continue to rely on living situations that pose major health and safety risks to them,” Kitchen said.

Kitchen announced the resolution, crafted in conjunction with Grey, on Jan. 22. Co-sponsors include Council members Mackenzie Kelly, Leslie Pool, Pio Renteria, Kathie Tovo, and Alter. The final version was posted Tuesday.

The resolution identifies four general areas that the initiative would tackle in the first of three phases. Cronk and staffers will determine the exact locations for all phases. The site selection criteria will be “objective,” said Kitchen, and will involve consultations with community organizations.

On the City Council Message Board last Friday, Alter asked that city parkland – where camping is currently illegal – be included in the phase two and three prioritization. Because of Covid-19, the city has not enforced the ban on camping in parks.

Kitchen agreed and added several other amendments during Council’s Tuesday work session to address community concerns, including more explicit language stating that the initiative would not criminalize homelessness. “I appreciate the balance and humaneness with which this is constructed,” Alter said.

Seeing that the plan had the votes, Council members at the work session focused on how to implement the plan. Mayor Steve Adler said that the community “badly needs” a schedule and the assurance that the program will help end homelessness in the most “constructive and helpful” way.

Council Member Greg Casar emphasized that the methodology in choosing sites must be objective: “The question is … how are we making sure that those are objectively and truly not healthy or safe places compared to the alternatives?”

He also wondered how the program will end and how to define whether it is successful. “When do we think we have offered sufficient housing to people camped in a location?” he said. “And when do we decide that we have achieved success?”

Though Adler and Casar did not explicitly support the resolution, they applauded Kitchen’s leadership and said that the amendments addressed questions they had heard from the community.

Council Member Vanessa Fuentes asked whether the city has enough money for the $3 million program without taking funds away from other homelessness programs. Grey said that there are enough funds in the general budget for the program.

Council Member Paige Ellis and Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison have not yet commented.

Photo 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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