In June, Austin City Council passed an ordinance lifting a ban on homeless individuals camping, sitting and lying down in certain public areas. As the city works through its plan to combat homelessness, it has held a series of panels to engage the community in conversation.
The first panel discussion was held Aug. 21 at the Austin Convention Center. On Aug. 29, homeless service providers and community leaders again responded to questions from the community in a town hall at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library on the University of Texas campus.
Questions from audience members echoed a number of common refrains heard from the community, including questions about where public camping is and is not allowed, how many homeless are coming in from places outside of Austin and what the city is doing to protect residents.
The town hall was moderated by Steven Pedigo, a professor at LBJ School of Public Affairs. Panelists included Mayor Steve Adler, Austin Police Department Chief Brian Manley, LifeWorks CEO Susan McDowell, ECHO Executive Director Matthew Mollica, community advocate Chris Harris, LBJ School professor Sherri Greenberg and Bill Brice, vice president of investor relations for Downtown Austin Alliance.
Why is public camping prohibited in front of City Hall but allowed in front of local businesses?
In response to a question about the June ordinance, Adler said council chose to pass a general ordinance to decriminalize homeless behavior in the city.
“Someone who was just being homeless—we’re not going to put them in jail or arrest them for being homeless,” he said.
However, there were existing city ordinances on the books prohibiting camping in certain areas, such as public parks, trails, and city buildings. Adler said examining those other ordinances “is something we can take a look at,” but was not within the scope of council’s actions earlier this summer.
What will the city do to protect residents?
The questions in this vein touched on a few different subjects, from trash in public areas to panhandling to criminal behavior and sanitation, but centered around the main point of what the city could do to protect residents from criminal behavior from the homeless.
Manly reinforced the idea that residents should call the police whenever they see criminal behavior, because even if police are not able to respond to the specific incident, the data will help the department deploy resources more effectively in the future.
Harris pushed back on the premise.
“The people that are camping in your neighborhood are your neighbors too. They live in your neighborhood,” he said. “I know a lot of folks are feeling victimized by folks camping in their neighborhoods, but almost every single one of those folks would switch places with you if they could. We are all trying to get to a place we can live together and live together well.”
How does Austin house people who do not want to be housed?
In responding to this question, Mollica made a distinction between the housing available to most people on the private market—with choices about which neighborhood, the type of housing and other factors—against the shelter housing available to homeless individuals.
“The idea that we have folks who don’t want the type of housing we’re providing to them—that’s real; we can acknowledge that. However, I think where we’re mistaken is we think we know what people want. Instead of asking what they want, we tell them what they want,” Mollica said.
Adler reinforced that point, saying most people would prefer to be in a home than to not be in a home, but the challenges and risks associated with a shelter can make a tent under a highway overpass more appealing.