City Council prioritizes changing Austin’s public camping laws by Oct. 17

Homelessness camps, such as this one across the street from the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, are in focus as City Council debated public camping ordinance changes.

Homelessness camps, such as this one across the street from the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, are in focus as City Council debated public camping ordinance changes.

Nearly four months after Austin City Council’s controversial decision to decriminalize public camping, sitting and lying down—bans on which critics said targeted the homeless population—the city’s elected officials are gearing up to vote this week on further changes to those laws.

It will be attempt 2.0 for a City Council that tried and failed to agree on amendments through two meetings in mid-September and the first significant vote on the issue since Texas Gov. Greg Abbott weighed in on Austin’s homelessness challenge and threatened state intervention if the city could not show “consequential improvement” by Nov. 1. The upcoming Oct. 17 meeting is the penultimate gathering of city lawmakers scheduled before the governor’s deadline arrives.

With two resolutions and an ordinance teed up for votes on Oct. 17, City Council tried to work out ideological differences during its Oct. 15 work session—differences that stymied the September attempt to shift policy and change the ordinances. City Council has acknowledged the confusion many in the community expressed following the June 20 decision to decriminalize public camping, sitting and lying down. The Oct. 17 vote, they said, aims to set clear expectations for those experiencing homelessness, the wider public and public safety officials enforcing the laws.

Council members did not reach a clear consensus on the specifics of rule changes during the work session—the mayor and council members are expected to offer amendments and changes to proposals on the City Council message board by Oct. 16. Lawmakers did agree, however, that an Oct. 17 vote on law changes—and thus, further clarity—was necessary, and they could not repeat the failed September effort.

Whatever they may be, District 7 Council Member Leslie Pool said she was “all-in” on voting on changes at this week’s meeting. She said constituents are looking for accountability.

“I think the public is looking for us to stand up and make some very clear statements about where we stand on this issue,” Pool said.

Substance of the changes


The changes are meant to provide clarity for the homeless population, set expectations for the wider public and give law-enforcement officers further specificity on what and how to enforce. However, where a majority of lawmakers stand on the issue remains unclear as they head into Thursday’s meeting. District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen said the mayor and City Council members would be offering their own amendments through the City Council message board by Oct. 16.

The original laws flat out banned public camping, sitting and lying down, which made enforcement easy for police officers; however, the bans criminalized the status of being homeless, advocates said, and citations received as a result of the laws built tougher barriers for those trying to exit homelessness.

When council decriminalized the acts in June, it wrote the law in a way that forced everyone, from police officers to those experiencing homelessness, to interpret terms such as “materially endangering health and safety” and “recklessly rendering impassable or impeding the reasonable use of a public area.” The vagueness around these terms sowed confusion into the public discourse, as expressed by a range of community members over the summer.

Proposed changes to these laws attempt to provide clarity; however, council members have disagreed on the appropriate level of specificity. Lawmakers such as Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza and District 4 Council Member Greg Casar have said that banning camping on specific streets, or on sidewalks outright, goes too far and undermines the original intent of City Council’s June decision. Other council members, such as Kitchen and District 9 City Council Member Kathie Tovo, have supported such specifics, including implementing bans around city schools and along the city’s designated Safe Routes to School.

There also remains disagreement on whether camping should be banned outright in places with high fire risk and how widespread a camping, sitting and lying down ban should be around the city’s homeless shelters. Austin Mayor Steve Adler said the bans around shelters will be an important step in warming the community up to opening more shelters.

The community is invited to weigh on the ordinance changes during the Oct. 17 meeting; however, City Council has not set a time for when deliberations will begin.
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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