Austin's move to loosen laws for the benefit of homeless population spurs community conversation

Speakers during Austin City Council's homelessness panel included representatives from the nonprofit and faith communities, legal experts and justice advocates, downtown businesses and the local police department.

Speakers during Austin City Council's homelessness panel included representatives from the nonprofit and faith communities, legal experts and justice advocates, downtown businesses and the local police department.

As the community grapples with a growing number of homeless people, city officials, too, are grappling with whether certain rules and laws are unfairly targeting, or unfairly placing burden on, the homeless population.

A cohort of City Council members have brought forward changes to a trio of ordinances they claim place such burden on homeless people. Austin's existing no-sit, no-lie ordinance prohibits sitting or lying down on public sidewalks and sleeping outdoors in the homeless-heavy downtown area; the no-camping rule outlaws camping in a public area not specifically designated for the act; and the no-solicitation law forbids panhandling and asking people for money.

The rules have been analyzed and debated within city circles since at least 2017, when a report from the city auditor’s office pointed out constitutional conflicts with the laws, claimed they were inefficient in addressing homelessness and created unnecessary barriers to exiting homelessness. The proposal by some City Council members and the mayor aimed to strike the rules against solicitation and panhandling. They also sought to amend the no-sit, no-lie and no-camping ordinances to only prohibiting actions that endanger public health and safety or negatively impact the use of public property in an intentional or reckless way.

Although City Council decided earlier this week to postpone its final decision on the law changes, it hosted a panel hearing during the June 6 meeting to listen to a broad range of stakeholders on what result they thought would follow the changes and how the changes would impact the city’s relationship with the homeless community. Panel participants represented the nonprofit and faith communities, legal experts, justice advocates, downtown businesses and the local police department.

Mayor Steve Adler said he was convinced the community was aligned on the need to address homelessness and all stakeholders wanted to see the problem shrink. The path to get there, however, has caused some contention.

A question of content

The discussion June 6 first aimed to prove the ordinance changes would not impact public health and safety and continue to preserve protections against aggressive behavior. Some members of the downtown community had expressed concern lifting prohibitions on panhandling would welcome confrontational behavior and loosening the camping rules would result in a flood public encampments.

Council Member Greg Casar, who has led the push to change the ordinances, continued to push the point that none of the rule changes would prevent police from intervening when someone feels unsafe.

Among the changes is the replacement of the no-solicitation ordinance to instead prohibit aggressive confrontation. Council members and legal experts concluded the content of speech should not matter—whether someone was soliciting money or a phone number is irrelevant—but rather the manner in which it is expressed.

Austin police Chief Brian Manley said intervention would depend on a police officer’s judgment, and the language of the new ordinances needed to be clear enough to eliminate as much gray area as possible. Manley said the community needed have a clear and true expectation of how the city and police department would respond in various situations.

The focus then shifted to what Adler considered the most important question: What should the community’s response be to someone who is experiencing homelessness, and, as Adler said, maybe having a psychotic break, has not bathed or is camped out on a sidewalk—out of the way of pedestrian traffic—yet not disturbing the public peace or space?

Impact of existing rules and the changes

Steven James Potter, one of the panelists for the discussion June 6, said he has been homeless for a number of years but has worked to improve the lives of homeless people through volunteering at the Salvation Army and working with advocacy groups.

“Few people know homelessness more than I do,” Potter said. “What these ordinances do, at present, is criminalize me for sitting or lying down.”

Potter said the proposed changes would provide “sanctuary and a little bit of hope” for those experiencing homelessness. The changes, as written, would only prohibit camping or sitting or lying in public space in a manner that threatens harm to the public peace and intentionally or recklessly impedes the public use of the space.

Steve Roberts, the chairperson of the safety and hospitality committee with the Downtown Austin Alliance—a group of downtown stakeholders—said the proposed change as written could result in unintentional consequences.

At 18 feet wide, Congress Avenue’s sidewalks, Roberts said, could allow for a homeless person to set up a tent or lie down and sleep on the sidewalk yet still be out of the way of pedestrians and not causing any threat to public health or safety. Roberts said the city relies on a vibrant downtown tax base to increase revenues and spend on homelessness initiatives; however, people camping on sidewalks could negatively impact downtown’s vitality.

City needs help

Roberts said the city needed to address homelessness through shelter first and then housing. He said when someone asks a homeless person to move, the city needs to have somewhere for them to go. Roberts criticized the city for focusing on the slower process of connecting people to permanent housing rather than taking people off the streets.

“In the last [homeless census] there were over 700 people sleeping within a quarter-mile of [the ARCH]; you have a public health and humanitarian crisis right here, right now,” Roberts said. “We need shelter now. Everyone could use a shelter, but not everyone is ready for 6-month apartment lease. When we [have a place for homeless people to go] we will be on the right track.”

Council Member Kathie Tovo said although the city may have the resources to build a shelter, they are stretched when it comes to operating a shelter.

“We have a huge challenge, and I don’t know how we are going to meet it,” Tovo said. “This has to be a community effort. We really need the private community to help.”

A vote coming in two weeks

Casar and other council members expressed confidence the community could work through the differences and come to a solution.

“We need to focus on taking into account everyone’s public safety and not making it worse for people who are homeless,” Casar said.

City Council vowed to continue to work with the community before taking a final vote scheduled for its June 20 meeting.
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


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