Proposed changes to public camping ordinances force two special-called Austin City Council meetings

Austin City Council called two special meetings to discuss proposals that would restrict where homeless encampments could be located.

Austin City Council called two special meetings to discuss proposals that would restrict where homeless encampments could be located.

Local lawmakers are scheduled to meet twice next week, Wednesday, Sept. 18 and Friday, Sept. 20, to discuss and vote on proposed changes to how the government regulates homeless encampments in the city.

The meetings come three months after Austin City Council, under pressure from civil rights advocates and legal experts who highlighted potential constitutional violations behind public camping bans, voted to decriminalize homeless encampments throughout the city. However, some camping restrictions for city property, public parks and public right-of-way obstruction, have remained in place.

The decision, combined with a plan to open a new taxpayer-funded shelter in South Austin, thrust the city’s homelessness challenges further into the spotlight and caused voices on each side of the issue to amplify.

Now, two different groups of Austin City Council members have proposed alternative sets of changes to the city’s public camping laws and will discuss, take public comment and vote next week.

District 5 and District 9 City Council Members Ann Kitchen and Kathie Tovo, whose districts have denser populations of people experiencing homelessness, offered their proposed changes Tuesday, Sept. 10. The proposal is highlighted by reinstating camping restrictions along full stretches of road in downtown, West Campus and East Austin, as well as transit stops, designated routes that are part of the Safe Routes to School program and surrounding shelters.

In a post on the City Council message board, Tovo said her and Kitchen’s offices “worked closely” with Austin Mayor Steve Adler, District 4 City Council Member Greg Casar and community members for several weeks in order to draft the proposal. However, Tovo pointed out that although there was agreement on “most” of the provisions, the offices’ sentiments were not in complete alignment. The proposal gained support from District 10 and District 7 City Council Members Alison Alter and Leslie Pool.

The division showed itself when, three hours later Sept. 10, Adler posted his and Casar’s proposal, which, among the differences from Kitchen and Tovo’s, did not ban camping outright on entire streets, but did restrict it on specific stretches. Overall, Adler and Casar’s proposal would restrict camping in fewer areas of the city. The proposal has gained support from City Council Members Pio Renteria and Natasha Harper-Madison, and mayor pro tem Delia Garza.

In her support for the Adler-Casar proposal, Garza said she was "disheartened" that "that some of us on this Council are choosing a divisive step backward rather than working together to move forward."

Tovo responded Sept. 12, urging that lawmakers work hard to not make this a divisive issue.

"This has been a difficult conversation in our community," Tovo wrote on the message board. "It doesn’t need to be one on our dais. We can disagree on elements of the ordinance and whether/how to revise it, and we can do that with respect. We all share the broader goal of ending homelessness in this city and making sure each and every one of our neighbors has a safe and stable place to sleep. I intend to keep focused on that goal."

A proposal from council needs at least four sponsors, and cannot have more than five, to earn a place on City Council's official meeting agenda. Council Members Jimmy Flannigan and Paige Ellis had not weighed in on either proposal as of Sept. 12.

The Sept. 18 and Sept. 20 meetings will be held in addition to council's regular meeting Sept. 19. Council will also hold its scheduled work session on Sept. 17.

Read Tovo and Kitchen’s proposal here. Read Adler and Casar’s proposal here.

Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed Council Member Kathie Tovo's message board post to a member of her staff.
By Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, USA Today and several other local outlets along the east coast.


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