Austin City Council to vote on changes aimed at decriminalizing homelessness

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — On Thursday, Austin City Council will vote on an ordinance which would change both the city’s ban on sitting, lying, or camping in public spaces, in addition to changing the city’s ban on panhandling.

Council members behind this resolution believe it will reduce criminal charges people receive just for being homeless — and in turn make it easier for those people to get housing and jobs. 

Proponents of these changes also believe it will help the city find better ways for police to handle non-threatening behavior from homeless people.

This issue was postponed from a meeting earlier in June and has sparked opposition from groups like the Downtown Austin Alliance and Safe Horns — a group that promotes safety in the UT Austin area. (This is item 185 if you are following along with the jam-packed council agenda for June 20).

After input from community groups, the resolution before council this week has changed from what was initially proposed.

What the ordinance will do

Under the changes, APD will only be allowed to arrest or ticket someone who is soliciting, camping, sitting, or lying in a public area if they present a public health or safety hazard.

If the new changes are passed, enforced offenses would include things like aggressive panhandling, touching, intimidating and trespassing. The public health threats would constitute an offense under the changes would include things like unsanitary conditions, drug paraphernalia, and human waste.

Under this proposed ordinance, an offense would only happen if a person is endangering the health/safety of another person or intentionally making a public area impassable or unusable. Currently the city prohibits solicitation and these changes would broaden the code to prohibit “aggressive confrontation.”

Additionally, under this proposed ordinance, a police officer would need to provide written notice before taking enforcement action when a person’s health or safety is not imminently endangered.

The proposed ordinance would make all aggressive confrontations offenses under city code, whether they are solicitations or not.

Support for the ordinance

Council Member Greg Casar, who sponsored this ordinance, has also asked to for quarterly reports on the enforcement of the code using anonymized data. Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison, and Council Member Pio Renteria are also sponsors of this ordinance.

“The fact of the matter is, we currently have criminal laws — which say it is criminal just because you’re homeless– that aren’t targeting dangerous behavior but are just criminalizing the fact that you are homeless,” Casar said. “And by changing those laws, we can better enhance health and safety, we can better fit within the U.S. Constitution and we can get people in homes instead of in handcuffs.”

Casar cited a City Auditor report in November of 2017. The report from the City Auditor found that Austin’s policies limiting camping, sitting, or lying in public spaces may make it more difficult for people to leave homelessness because of a criminal record or arrest warrants. The audit found that even if a citation does not leave a mark on someone’s criminal record “it does not appear to be an effective way of connecting that individual to services.”

“I think we all share the same goal of getting people off the streets, and I think the way to do that is to get people out of the jails and into shelters and housing,” he said.

The report also suggested that Austin’s current ordinances pose legal risks because of lawsuits faced by other cities with similar policies. The audit asked city leaders to look at whether these ordinances should be repealed and said that if the ordinances are not repealed, the City manager should find and implement changes to make their enforcement more effective.

Casar felt the original ordinance he proposed in early June would not have allowed aggressive behavior in Austin, he sees the amended version as more of a clarification.

“State law already bans harassment and already bans aggressive confrontations,” he said.

Casar said that council members have heard from service providers for Austin’s homeless that the current sit-lie, camping, and panhandling ordinances are making people more likely to have a criminal record and actively hindering their ability to get into housing.

Ann Howard, Executive Director of Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), confirmed that these citations and criminal records have been a hindrance to homeless individuals ECHO has worked with.

She explained that tickets from these ordinances can lead to arrests in cases where someone who already has a warrant out for their arrest. Or, Howard said, people who get a ticket and don’t pay for it wind up getting a warrant.

“Even just having a warrant out can prevent you from being accepted into rental housing,” Howard explained.

When there’s a client who has a criminal history, any criminal history makes you less competitive for rental housing,” she said. “We spend a lot of time at ECHO working with landlords to help people mitigate criminal history.”

The people cited for the offenses in these ordinances receive a Class C misdemeanor.

“On face value, a Class C misdemeanor does not prevent housing, but as it becomes a warrant or something more drastic it can prevent housing,” Howard said.

In a document posted to the council message board, Austin Mayor Steve Adler says this proposed ordinance will keep “all law enforcement tools that deal with threats to public safety and public health hazards.”

He explained that things like unhoused living challenges — such as people being unkept, poorly dressed, sleeping in cars, or having mental health episodes — should be seen as separate from public safety and public health hazards. Additionally, Adler says, the amended ordinance included many of the Downtown Austin Alliance and the Crime Commission’s suggestions.

Adler acknowledged in his note on the message board that APD is concerned that voluntary compliance with city rules will stop if the threat of arrest is taken away. But the Mayor maintains that criminalizing conduct that isn’t a hazard or a threat further complicates people’s lives and doesn’t address the underlying problem.

The Mayor has also proposed a separate resolution that that would ask the City Manager to come back in August to council with proposed steps to quickly offer ways to address homelessness in Austin while not criminalizing the homeless.

Concern over the ordinance

One of the groups who is opposed to the proposed changes to the sit-lie, panhandling, and camping ordinances is the Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA).

DAA CEO Dewittt Peart spoke with KXAN Wednesday, explaining that his organization has been very involved in talking to city leaders about how the proposed ordinance could be altered.

Peart said that DAA was opposed to the initial ordinance proposed in early June and glad that council opted to delay a vote. Despite meetings with many city leaders and community stakeholders, DAA said they are worried about the changes that will be up for a vote on Thursday.

“We think we’ve made a lot of progress in the [last] 20 days, but we’re still not comfortable as to where we are,” Peart said.

“We are honestly very concerned that there wasn’t a community process around this,” he added, noting that he is hoping the vote is delayed again.

SafeHorns members show up in numbers to Thursday’s Austin City Council meeting to voice their concerns with the proposed changes to the “no sit, no lie,” camping and panhandling rules. (KXAN Photo: Candy Rodriguez)

He explained that DAA still is not on board with the changes to the “aggressive confutation” ordinance, he believes the aggressive confrontation should not have to be intentional to constitute a criminal offense.

“For example, it doesn’t matter if you intended to run the red light or not, if you run a red light it’s illegal,” he said.

Peart said that DAA supports the council’s efforts to decriminalize homelessness, but DAA does not agree with the language that is proposed for the changes to the sit-lie and camping ordinances.

DAA has a program where they pay for two overtime officers to patrol downtown Austin. According to data collected from those officers between January 1 and April 30, 2019, the officers interacted with more than 8,000 people violating the solicitation, camping, and sit-lie ordinances. Of those interactions, 98% of the time, people voluntarily complied with officers’ requests to change their behavior — so no citation was issued.

Peart believes these high compliance rates exist because the ordinances do.

“Although we are saying if we had more time, if council had a more robust process, we think we could come to an agreement on how we can improve these,” Peart said. “Why are we moving this so quickly? There’s no need to.”

This is a busy week for action items related to homelessness at City Hall. Council is also slated to vote Thursday on whether to buy a South Austin building to use for a new housing-focused homeless shelter.

A different perspective: Homeless man shares ordinance impacts

Merlen Blackwell has been calling Austin’s streets home since 2015. The Austinite said he’s been working on becoming a better person after struggling with years of drug abuse and spending more than 20 years in prison.

Dispute his efforts, Blackwell said he has encountered some obstacles.

“I have (nine) tickets I need to go take care of,” he said.

Blackwell has accumulated tickets from police for breaking city rules primarily the “no sit/no lie” rule. He believes this creates an added barrier for him and others in the same situation.

“How are you going to pay for a ticket when you’re homeless?” he questioned. “Don’t come out here and tell us that we can’t sit down and we’re homeless. Where are we supposed to sit down? On the ground? (Police) write you a ticket for sitting on the ground.”

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