APD Chief: homelessness has become more visible since ordinance changes

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Hundreds of people attended Tuesday night’s Downtown Austin Alliance forum to hear directly from Austin’s police chief about how APD is interpreting and enforcing the new camping and sit/lie ordinances.

The changes went into effect on July 1.

Under the new ordinances, sleeping, sitting down or lying down in public areas is now allowed as long as you’re not blocking the public right of way and as long as you aren’t being a safety hazard to yourself or others.

“I’ll be honest with you. We are beginning to see an uptick in the issues in downtown,” said Dewitt Peart, President of CEO of Downtown Austin Alliance.

He said at Republic Square Park, the number of people who are homeless sleeping at the park, has increased from three or four to about 20.

Downtown resident Cynthia Ruff said she’s also noticed an increase in trash.

“It would be so much better if they would just pick up their trash, but it is a mess,” she said. “My husband and I like to walk downtown. We like to walk over to the east side. We used to feel totally safe. Now, everything under those bridges just feels a little uncomfortable.”

Peart added, “We’re getting reports everyday from property owners, businesses. They’re beginning to see more and more issues on the streets.”

How APD now handles calls about homeless camps or transients

Austin’s 311 told KXAN since July 1, there have been 233 calls about the homeless or transients.

Police Chief Brian Manley said APD is still responding to every single 911 or 311 calls for service, but what they can do once they get there is now limited.

He said the officers now have to make a judgment call on if the person sleeping is blocking the public right of away or is a safety hazard in any way.

If the officer determines that threshold hasn’t been reached, Manley said, “We’ll not be asking someone to change that behavior because we don’t ask people to change a behavior that is no longer against an ordinance or a law.”

He said APD is also working with the legal team to figure out under what kind of circumstances, the officers will be able to search people’s tents.

He explained, “Just like we need to get a search warrant to enter people’s homes, we have to understand the threshold of when would someone’s encampment or structure potentially reach that same threshold so that we’re not violating the law in searching and seizing evidence.”

Manley told KXAN the department is working closely with City Manager Spencer Cronk and other city leaders as Cronk determines the city’s next steps.

When the Austin City Council relaxed the no camping and sit/lie ordinances, the council asked the city manager to return with recommendations on topics like:

  • Finding reasonable time, place and limitations on camping, sitting and lying.
  • Providing options for parking areas for people sleeping in cars.
  • Suggesting locations for storage lockers.

Manley said, “There are some that are homeless by choice. They just prefer that lifestyle. So whatever plan we come up with has to address that, as well.”

He added, “It’s important that we’re part of the solution because we are out there, and there will always be the need for the ability to enforce the law.”

Peart said, “We’re hoping that the city itself will do public engagement events in the future.”

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