Austin City Council to consider no-camp zones, walking back June ordinance

Austin City Council will take up the issue of homelessness at its next meeting Sept. 19.

Austin City Council will take up the issue of homelessness at its next meeting Sept. 19.

An Aug. 30 memo from the city’s homeless strategy office provides some insight into how City Council might adapt its recent decision to lift a ban on homeless individuals camping, sitting or lying down in certain public areas.

City Council passed the resolution in June with the added direction that staff propose reasonable exceptions and possible options for noncriminal enforcement methods.

“Any limitations considered for identifying where an individual should not live/sleep will need to be carefully thought through in terms of enforcement and an individual’s constitutional rights,” per the memo, which was written by Assistant City Manager J. Rodney Gonzales and Kristi Samilpa, senior executive assistant in the homeless strategy office.

Gonzales and Samilpa pointed to recent city code amendments prohibiting the use of electric scooters and bicycles in areas with high pedestrian traffic.

The so-called "dismount zones" were identified by the city’s transportation department and may serve as a good roadmap for city staff as they identify areas that are unsafe to camp, sit or lie down in, Mayor Steve Adler said at an Aug. 30 press conference.

“We don’t let bicycles go on the sidewalks,” Adler said, adding it is reasonable to prohibit other behavior that prohibits pedestrian access.

Other areas are being considered as exceptions to the ordinance, including those with high vehicular traffic, which create health and safety issues for people experiencing homelessness; those near shelters; and those with a high risk of flooding.

A Dec. 2018 memo from the city’s watershed protection department expressed the concern that “it is important [to] keep individuals from living or camping in flood-prone locations such as in culverts or under bridges where flash floods could occur rapidly.”

City staff were also tasked with developing noncriminal means of enforcing this ordinance once it is updated.

In the Aug. 30 memo, Gonzales and Samilpa point to the Downtown Austin Community Court, which works to address the quality of life needs of vulnerable defendants, including those who may be experiencing homelessness, substance use issues or mental health conditions.

Additionally, they identify the Homeless Outreach Street Team, or HOST, initiative, which is a partnership between the Austin Police Department, Emergency Medical Services, Downton Austin Criminal Court and Integral Care, the local mental health authority. The HOST team works downtown and in West Campus to help connect at-risk individuals to services before a crisis or criminal incident.

Adler also pointed out that police are able to enforce existing restrictions, even with the June ordinance in place, such as when people camp on school property or in public parks, even as the city tries to move away from criminalizing homelessness.

“Every time [enforcement] happens, it’s a loss for us,” he said, while also acknowledging that enforcement is necessary.

Moving forward, council will meet with the city’s incoming Homeless Strategy Officer Lori Pampilo Harris on Sept. 9 to discuss long-term solutions.

Adler also said more specific recommendations will likely be discussed on council’s public message board ahead of the Sept. 19 meeting.
By Emma Freer
Emma Freer began covering Central Austin for Community Impact Newspaper in 2017. Her beat includes the Travis County Commissioners Court and local business news. She graduated from Columbia Journalism School in 2017.


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