Following years filled with questioning, testimonies, audit reports and campaigns, Austin’s four City Council members representing the east side are leading a push to amend or repeal three ordinances that experts say directly target the growing homeless population.
The no-sit, no-lie ordinance prohibits sitting or lying down on public sidewalks and sleeping outdoors in the homeless-heavy downtown area; the no-camping rule outlaws camping in a public area not specifically designated for the act; the no-solicitation law forbids panhandling and asking people for money.
Critics of the existing ordinances, which include legal experts, advocates and city representatives, said the laws not only present barriers to exiting homelessness, but also potential constitutional violations on behalf of the city.
“We won’t be able to arrest away our city’s homelessness problem,” Council Member Greg Casar said in a press release.
Casar joined fellow eastern crescent Council Members Natasha Harper-Madison, Pio Renteria and Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza in calling for the change.
“Asking for money, sitting or lying down in public, and sleeping in tents are basic requirements of survival, especially while homeless,” Casar said. “Criminalizing this behavior is unjust and unconstitutional, and can prevent people from getting into housing or support services – the very thing they need to get off the streets,”
Creating barriers and constitutional violations
Although city leaders have been hearing from homeless service providers, housing advocates, legal experts and city staff about the dangers the laws pose for years, a heavy push began following a 2017 report from the city auditor’s office that condemned the ordinances as regressive, ineffective and inefficient in the city’s efforts to address homelessness. The audit reported out of 18,000 citations issued between 2014-16, people frequently did not appear in court, often leading to arrest warrants, which could hurt a person’s prospects for an apartment or job.
The audit also highlighted constitutional violations embedded in the ordinances, such as the freedom of speech breach by the no-solicitation law. Austin has also long been criticized by community members for lacking shelter beds to accommodate its homeless population—the city has roughly 490 beds for a homeless population that ranges from 2,000 to 7,000 per night. Other cities have faced lawsuits against camping ordinances on this basis.
“The basic premise of the lawsuits [is]that when homeless shelters are full, people experiencing homelessness have no way to comply with the ordinance and it violates their constitutional rights,” the audit read.
A step in the right direction?
The ordinance to go in front of City Council on June 6 aims to repeal the no-solicitation ordinance. It would also narrow the no-camping and no-sit, no-lie prohibitions to cite only those who are “materially endangering” the health and safety of other people or themselves and whose use of the public property is “unreasonably inconvenient.”
As local advocacy group Grassroots Leadership’s campaign coordinator, Chris Harris has been at the forefront of the campaign to repeal the ordinances. Outside of City Council’s final meeting in December 2018, Harris led a group of advocates, outside in sub-freezing evening temperatures, calling for some City Council members to make good on campaign promises to address the laws.
Harris said May 29 that although he and his coalition are happy to see the “significant effort” to reduce homelessness criminalization, he still thinks there is work to do.
“The [current]ordinances are just a failure,” Harris said. “We think [the proposed changes]will reduce criminalization significantly, but it’s still clear the ordinances target people experiencing homelessness.”
Representatives from Austin Police Department have defended the ordinances in the past, saying they not only help maintain order but offer a buffer that allows officers to cite individuals instead of charging them with heavier misdemeanors.
No one from the Austin Police Department was immediately available for comment.
The Downtown Austin Alliance, a cohort of business owners and downtown stakeholders, released a statement May 29 strongly opposing the council members’ proposal, saying the city should instead focus on increasing homelessness services.
“Changing the ordinances … doesn’t solve Austin’s worsening issue of homelessness and, in fact, creates a multitude of serious health concerns for those who are living unsheltered and for the community as a whole,” said Dewitt Peart, the president and CEO of the DAA, in an emailed statement. “Austin needs to ensure people experiencing homelessness can be safe during the day and at night, so they no longer need to live on the streets. The [DAA] implores Austin City Council to put shelter and housing solutions in place and slow down to allow for community input on this very serious matter that will affect our entire community.”
In 2018, the Downtown Commission, members of which are appointed by City Council to advise on policies that impact downtown, unanimously recommended City Council back off from loosening or changing the three ordinances. The Downtown Commission last met May 15 and will not meet again until June 19. Vice Chairperson Jennifer Bristol said the commission was unaware City Council members planned to push the ordinance changes at their June 6 meeting.
Alan Graham, the CEO and founder of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, a faith-based group focused on feeding and providing permanent housing for the homeless, said homelessness is directly tied to a “catastrophic disconnection” from the larger community.
“Criminalizing behaviors associated with homelessness further that disconnection,” Graham said. “Changing these ordinances is one step in the direction of reconnection and palliative relief for our brothers and sisters on the streets of Austin.”
City Council is scheduled to vote on the ordinances Thursday, June 6.