Austin City Council postpones homeless rule change decision, continues discussion

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin City Council postponed any changes or clarification to the city’s homeless ordinance, despite setting a goal to finalize a plan Friday.

MORE: Austin to debate city’s homeless camping rules

As a result, the council is going to wait another month to update the city’s rules around homeless camping, sitting and lying.

During the discussion Friday, Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza expressed concerns about what she called a rushed process.

Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison said she was inclined to abstain from voting.

Ultimately, with a 9-1-1 vote, the council decided to wait until the week of October 10 to hash out different proposals and vote on any changes October 17. Council Member Jimmy Flannigan voted against the postponement, and Council Member Alison Alter was off the dais due to previously scheduled commitments.

“This is such an important challenge,” said Mayor Steve Adler. “It’s such an important opportunity, and our city right now, with so many people focused on this issue, we really need to get it right and not fast.”

Disagreements on sidewalk widths

One item the Council was hoping to clarify was what it means to block a sidewalk.

Under the current ordinance, people who are homeless can sit or lie in public places as long as they’re not blocking the right-of-way and are not being a safety hazard to themselves or others.

Council Member Greg Casar and Mayor Adler said they would be okay with the ordinance saying sitting and lying are allowed as long as there’s a 4-foot clear path.

Other Council Members – Alter, Leslie Pool, Kathie Tovo and Ann Kitchen – disagreed. They wanted the ordinance clarification to say all sidewalks are off limits to sitting, lying or camping.

“Sidewalk rules are set by safety standards,” said Kitchen. “It doesn’t make any sense to me to say that on a 5-foot sidewalk, you have to keep four feet clear. That leaves one foot. First of all, it’s 5-foot for a reason. Second off, you can’t camp on one foot.”

“I would actually like for our police officers to be able to look down and make a judgment call, the same way they make judgment calls all the time about lots of different things, but I want to get them that additional certainty as well,” said Adler.

Encampment response strategy

The council still used Friday to discuss options.

Council Members Tovo and Kitchen said ordinance changes and a clear strategy for dealing with homeless camps and ending homelessness go hand in hand.

“We need more money to hire a case manager,” Tovo said. “We need to be able to provide those individuals with shelters, provide them with housing and housing assistance to make them successfully be safely and stably housed.”

Kitchen said, “That’s the promise and the opportunity. We just have to act as a council to make it happen.”

Earlier this week, hundreds of people voiced their concerns during a five-hour meeting on Wednesday. Many people said they want certain streets and areas to be off -limits to camping, while others said they want the city to install restrooms and showers, instead of imposing additional restrictions.

“Instead of wasting resources, going after people that are just trying to sleep, just spend those resources on helping those people get out of homelessness and addressing the actual behavior people are concerned about,” said Timothy Bray, of AURA — a local group that advocates for “An Austin for Everyone.”

South Austin resident Leann Land told KXAN homeless camps under Ben White Boulevard have been around for years. But after camping bans were lifted, she’s noticing more trash and activities she doesn’t want kids at the nearby elementary school to see.

She said, earlier this week, she actually went and talked to people who have tents set up there.

“It was real eye opening.” Land said she admits she doesn’t like seeing beds, tents and shopping carts under the highway, but she’s now advocating for more resources as soon as possible.

“I kind of balance wanting to protect my neighborhood, but now I understand more that I really think services and helping those folks under the overpass is really the way to go,” she said.

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