In win for homeless advocates, Austin loosens laws against public camping, solicitation, sitting and lying down

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In another major move for the city’s progress on its homelessness issue this year, Austin City Council has loosened its laws around public camping, solicitation and sitting or lying down in some areas of the city, ordinances that critics say target Austin’s homeless population.

Some, however, represented at the June 20th City Council meeting mostly by downtown stakeholders and the University of Texas community, called the move premature, suggesting that the city first gather more resources to house, shelter and help the homeless population before loosening the laws.

City Council listened to more than three hours of public testimony on a topic that’s been a growing focus since a 2017 city audit highlighted the city’s no-camping, no-sit/no-lie and no solicitation laws as regressive, ineffective and inefficient in the city’s efforts to address homelessness.

District 4 Council Member Greg Casar, who led council’s push to loosen the laws, said the city cannot continue perpetuating injustice just because they have not fixed everything yet.

“If we care about safety and social justice, we cannot look away from these laws,” Casar said. “Our failures start when we stop looking at people as people. The work is about looking at our neighbors, both housed and not housed, as folks.”

With the change, police chief Brian Manley said people who set up tents or camping structures in the city that are not blocking a passageway will not be subject to police enforcement. Manley said homeless encampments that are not on private or homeowner association property would be allowed to exist; however, camping in city parks would remain prohibited.

The city’s no-solicitation ordinance has been changed to a no-aggressive confrontation ordinance so as to not make it illegal to ask for money, but rather, illegal to aggressively confront someone regardless of the content of the speech.

Critics of the long-standing ordinances pushed to ensure the city was not criminalizing a homeless person’s existence and, as many put it, their biological functions of needing rest and sleep.

Some council members supported the changes to the no-solicitation and no-sit/no-lie but expressed concern over loosening the camping rules. Council Members Kathie Tovo, Alison Alter and Ann Kitchen said they were concerned about people setting up tents on city sidewalks. Tovo said she felt the city could do better and urged the City Council to wait until the city manager came back with recommendations on safe camping areas in each City Council district; however, the majority of council did not agree. The city manager will, however, come back later this summer with recommendations.

The 2017 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 baked into the ordinances, such as the freedom of speech breach by the no-solicitation law.

Representatives of the Austin chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America said they knocked on thousands of doors in organizing community support for the ordinance changes. Those who have personal experience with homelessness also showed up to advocate for change.

“I don’t want to see anyone strung out on K2 in front of Maggie Mae’s,” said Steve Potter, an Austinite who has been homeless for several years. “But ticketing someone for it does not solve that.”

Alvin Sanderson, another Austinite who has been homeless, said the existing laws against camping force people into hiding in dark places around the city.

“A lot of people just want to be in the light, the light is safety,” Sanderson said, who has lost several friends who he said have been forced into dangerous living situations because they were afraid of sleeping somewhere where the police could find them.

Those who objected to changes chronicled traumatic encounters with homeless people, further expressing fear of assault, sexual assault, robbery, and rampant drug use. Council members emphasized that such criminal acts would remain illegal and the ordinance changes would unbundle the simple act of being homeless from criminalization.

“Nothing we’re doing here today is intended, in any way, to minimalize or decriminalize actual threats of public safety risks or hazards,” Mayor Steve Adler said.

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  1. Big mistake by the Austin City Council, but totally expected since the liberal left doesn’t solve problems or find adequate solutions, just exacerbates the problem taking no definitive actions. Liberals distance themselves from the effects of their induced bad outcomes while imposing the hardships on the masses they oversee. Run the liberals out of Travis County before they destroy it. Soon you will have deadly disease present on Austin City sidewalks. I will not be going downtown anymore.

  2. These council members must not remember how bad downtown was before the ordinances were enacted. Perhaps the ordinances served their purpose and are no longer needed but I expect the lure of downtown to be significantly impaired. The reputation of Austin as a destination for festival tourism and business conferences will likely suffer.

  3. I’m not opposed to helping the homeless but this was a horrible decision for the citizens and visiting public and Austin in general. It’s definitely helping citizens being victimized and taking the beauty from our city. Soon it will look like San Franisco and LA and that is not pretty. Filth gathers. And those cities have lost their desirability.

  4. Austin’s streets and bridge underpasses will be looking like Portland and Seattle before too long. Those cities have similar ordinances regarding the local homeless population, and there are tent cities everywhere they are completely unregulated. Unfortunately, it becomes a breeding ground for violence, drugs, and other vices.

  5. Mayor says if this does not work he will change it. How? One lady in the newspaper article last week said she had lived in the woods near an over pass for 5 years. Why not just set up a huge campground where people can camp and they could wash their cloths and take the bus to town or a job or not a job. Not everyone will ever come in from the cold let’s just get people . families with kids, old people , dogs and kittens , off the road ways..Now there is no hope for that.

  6. Bye, Bye Austin…Hello L.A. !

    So within a couple hours of the Austin city council’s vote, I had my first encounters with these new homeless “relaxed” ordinances. Unintended consequences??

    The heat wave in Austin had just cooled outside enough to be sitting enjoying the evening chatting with a girlfriend. A male we had never seen before was standing at the end of my driveway literally shaking trying to show us his hands and arms and saying “please please! do you have any thing for mosquitoes they are eating me alive!” I grabbed my mosquito repellent and offered to spray his arms and upper body which he eagerly begged me to yes help him! He was very dirty, his clothes as well, He was exhibiting a scared frightened look but began to de-escalate as I spoke with him. From my work for many years, I recognized the look in his eyes, pupils dilated, frightened like a scared animal, still shaking, skin crawling—all signs of meth, heroin. He said He was lost and was trying to find his way out of our community. I calmly gave him the most simplest directions to the exit.

    A couple hours later, I drove to a convenience store for a drink. As I drove down the street, I saw a guy laying on the sidewalk, head on his backpack, trash dispersed around his body, settling in for a night’s sleep—another 100 yards—another guy squatting, defecating on the sidewalk.

  7. Before commenting watch what city council actually voted on. No one is allowed to put up tents on downtown sidewalks. They are allowed to sleep, sit down or lie as long as they do not block businesses or walk ways. They can ask for money but not harrass. This is in accordance with a national ruling. They will be identifying areas all around the city that have public bathrooms and services homeless people need so people can camp in quiet. Public parks, downtown sidewalks and greenbelts are not legal to camp in and police can remove them. They will also find spaces people can park who live in their cars. Instead of police ticketing homeless citizens they will be helping them go to areas where these activities are allowed.

    • I would be curious how many city council members and other people that are for this actually live or own property downtown… I’ve owned property and lived downtown for 11 years now and it has gotten so much worse than ever before in the last 6 months. It is starting to actually smell like urine in areas. In the past 3 weeks, I have passed 4 different homeless people passed out on the sidewalk, one in a puddle of vomit, all with needles either in the arm or in their hand. I don’t think anyone has a right to have as much of an opinion about this as people that actually own property downtown and have to deal with this first hand. I think there has to be a better solution than just relaxing the laws and making this a free-for-all. It is not ok for me to litter, pee in public, or be out of my mind on drugs and I should not be allowed for anyone else to “camp” with their piles of litter either.

  8. We should give out tents to people who are willing to camp in front of the Austin Mayors residence the W hotel sidewalk. Maybe we should add Greg Casar home to that list along with others from the city council. Maybe that might make it a real issue. Say goodbye to downtown tourism and conventions. #notgoingdowntown

  9. Would someone kindly write an article on what litter and deification clean up is costing tax payers for city camping? Or, how city camping impacts our drinking water? Or, how unsanitary conditions cause disease? Or, how public safety is impacted? Loosening the law will result in chaos. The lack of upholding sound laws, pushed by the Democratic Party, is going to result in the downfall of our great country. Visit Seattle for a great example. I couldn’t walk downtown without having to step into oncoming traffic. Remove stabilizing walls (laws), the house will crumble.

  10. Let’s do this…..Saw an article that UT students are going to publish the names and addresses of conservative students………………….so let’s get the addresses of every city council member, every person, politician, agency representative and let’s pitch in $10 and publish the list and give every homeless person cards for razors and money if they go camp on city council members front lawn. City council members did not have to vote this ordinance and now they need to feel at their businesses and residences what the rest of us are feeling…..PUBLISH THAT LIST AND LET’S GIVE THOSE HOMELESS PEOPLE MONEY TO GO CAMPING. IF YOU FEEL so empathetic, move them into your neighborhood and house…..

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Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following two years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and USA Today. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
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