Austin’s new homelessness ordinances ban camping on sidewalks but allow sitting and lying down

Austin City Council spent hours on Oct. 17 debating changes to the city's public camping, sitting and lying down.

Austin City Council spent hours on Oct. 17 debating changes to the city's public camping, sitting and lying down.

City Council banned public camping from sidewalks throughout the city but will permit sitting and lying down unless it is 15 feet from an operating business in an Oct. 17 vote that marked a major step forward in the strenuous debate over a pair of laws that directly impact the homeless.

The move comes nearly four months after City Council on June 20 flat out decriminalized public camping, sitting and lying down throughout the city, lifting bans that critics said added barriers to exiting homelessness.

That move in June earned the lawmakers praise from civil rights advocates and harsh criticism from a range of residents, business owners, and other stakeholders. Throughout the summer, homelessness, and what many saw as fallout from the ordinance changes, dominated the civic stage.

"I could point to a lot of big disagreements we've had in this city in recent years, but none of them, not one of them have provoked such an intense reaction as the vote we took in June," said District 1 Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison, who said she was homeless at one point. "We've all seen the unrelenting social media posts...that paint a picture of a city under siege. There is no illusion on this dais that Austin does not have a serious crisis when it comes to homelessness. But we aren't going to fix anything by giving in."

City Council’s decision to ban camping on sidewalks but allow sitting and lying down defied the advice of Austin Police Chief Brian Manley, who recommended banning camping, sitting and lying down on sidewalks citywide. The ordinance distinguishes camping as storing personal belongings for an extended period of time, cooking, making a fire, digging or breaking into the earth or using a tent or other structure for living. Sitting and lying down that renders a sidewalk impassable or "materially endangers" the health of anyone, is also banned.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler said it was time to stop talking about the ordinances—which have attracted much social media hyperbole and public outcry—and shift the conversation to housing and how to get homeless Austinites in homes.

"I know this is hard and I know this is not perfect," Adler said. "I hope we're able to recognize those things and still lead the community to a task that is squarely in front of us."

The final vote was 7-4. Council Member Ann Kitchen voted against the approved changes as part of a voting block with council members Leslie Pool, Alison Alter and Kathie Tovo. The group said they wanted the camping, sitting and lying down restrictions to go further in protecting the safety of those living outdoors. The group failed to garner support for restrictions that ban camping along highway medians, under overpasses and along the banks of creeks and river beds.

"It just doesn't seem humane to me and it just doesn't seem right," Pool said. "I'm voting against this because it just doesn't do enough."

The changes to the ordinances come following a pair of letters from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who demanded Austin show “consequential improvement” in its homelessness situation and reinstate its citywide public camping ban, by Nov. 1. Abbott said if the city did not meet his demands by his deadline, he would use state resources to achieve his goals.

In his letters, Abbott said Austin’s “homelessness crisis” created dangers to public health and safety. Manley said the city was suffering from a “public order” problem as a result of the initial ordinance changes and reported that Austinites perceived they were less safe. However, Manley stopped short of calling it a “public safety crisis.”

Manley said year-over-year in downtown Austin, property crime is up 18% and violent crime is up 15%, however, the police chief did not link the uptick to changes in the homelessness ordinances. Citywide statistics from the Austin Police Department show from July to September, year-over-year, violent crime with a homeless suspect and non-homeless victim are up 11%—64 cases to 71 cases. Property crime with a homeless suspect and non-homeless victim is up 2%—322 cases to 327.

The largest jump in crimes during that time was non-homeless attacking the homeless, according to the statistics. Violent crime with a non-homeless suspect and homeless victim went up 19%—36 cases to 43 cases. Property crime with a non-homeless suspect and homeless victim went up 42%—52 cases to 74 cases.

The ordinance also prohibits camping in areas with high wildfire risk and around homeless shelters. Some council members disagreed with the latter prohibition. Harper-Madison said the ban around homeless shelters would be the “epitome of sweeping homelessness under the rug.”

“I don’t see how hiding people is helping them,” Harper-Madison said.

The Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, the central downtown homeless shelter, has been criticized as an eyesore for the number of people camping and sitting and lying down around it. The optics of the ARCH were cited by neighbors who objected to the city's decision to buy a property in South Austin for a new homeless shelter in June.

Adler said moving forward with banning such activities around shelters would be crucial in warming residents up to the idea of opening more shelters in neighborhoods around the city.

A highlight of the updated ordinance is that it directs the city to not enforce the prohibitions unless the city has offered its full menu of services—housing included—and ensured that the person in question has both had enough time to participate in the services and has been thoroughly educated on the city’s rules on public camping, sitting and lying down.

The updated rules will take effect Oct. 27.

Editor's note: This article was updated to add City Council's vote tally. 
SHARE THIS STORY
By 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 Su


MOST RECENT

Trudy's North Star, located at 8820 Burnet Road, Austin, was closed as of Friday afternoon, Jan. 24, with a sign on the door saying the restaurant would reopen Monday, Jan. 27. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
Trudy's files for bankruptcy, owes employees more than $267,000 in unpaid wages

According to court documents, the Tex-Mex restaurant's financial issues started with its Dripping Springs location, which lost over $1 million per year.

Students at Lee Lewis Campbell Elementary Media and Performing Arts Institute in East Austin point to their classmate holding the red bag, whose artwork is featured on the new electric bus. (Amy Denney/Community Impact Newspaper)
Capital Metro sets ambitious goal to eventually replace all 423 buses with electric versions

Starting Jan. 26, riders can ride the new electric buses, which will rotate among routes.

(Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)
Council members divided over hire of outside attorney in property protest rights lawsuit

Some City Council members said taxpayer dollars should not be used to fight taxpayer interests.

While a new story is scheduled to open in South Austin this March, the H-E-B located at 600 W William Cannon Drive, Austin, will close this spring. (Nicholas Cicale/Community Impact Newspaper)
South Austin H-E-B openings, closings and renovations expected in 2020

2020 is slated to be a year of major development for H-E-B in the South Austin area, with projects totaling $200 million.

Central Health is exploring options to provide a cash injection to its employees with minimum wage salaries. (Courtesy Fotolia)
Central Health will explore minimum wage bumps for its employees

The health care district is considering increasing its minimum wage to $15 per hour.

Austin EyeWorks gains new leadership as longtime doctor retires

An Oak Hill optometry office has welcomed a new eye doctor.

Construction on Sunset Valley city facilities including its new police building were completed in the early summer of 2019, but problems persist with its water features. (Nicholas Cicale/Community Impact Newspaper)
Sunset Valley to withhold payment until city facility pond issues are resolved

Sunset Valley will withhold between $200,000-$250,000 in payments for its new water quality pond.

A photo of the exterior of Dripping Springs City Hall.
Neighborhood Note: Dripping Springs appoints the city’s first full-time attorney

Dripping Springs City Council has named Laura Mueller city attorney.

An aerial rendering of the schematic design for Dripping Springs ISD's fifth elementary school.
Plans progress on Dripping Springs ISD bond projects, new school construction in 2020

Construction will move forward at several Dripping Springs ISD school sites, both new and existing, this year.

(Courtesy Whataburger)
Whataburger opens new location on East Oltorf Street

This is the burger chain's 19th location in Austin.

Travis County commissioners participated in budget hearings during the fiscal year 2018-19 budget process. (Taylor Jackson Buchanan/Community Impact Newspaper)
Travis Central Appraisal District board will host in-person meetings for informal protests in 2020

The Travis Central Appraisal District board of trustees voted to bring back in-person meetings for informal protests this year.

Back to top