Former Austin Mayor Leffingwell: Homeless ordinance changes a mistake

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Former Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell criticized the decision by his successor and city council to roll back ordinances this summer regulating where people experiencing homelessness can camp, sit and sleep.

In an interview with KXAN Tuesday, Leffingwell said the decision was a “mistake” and recommended council revert back to the old ordinances while members work on other solutions.

“I understand that they’re trying to reshuffle the deck on the ordinance and try to make it different,” Leffingwell said, “but it’s a lot easier to do with the deck intact instead of just throwing the entire deck on the floor and then trying to do it.”

Lee Leffingwell is sworn in as Austin’s mayor on June 22, 2009. (KXAN File Photo)

Leffingwell, current Mayor Steve Adler’s immediate predecessor, served as mayor between 2009 and 2015 after sitting on council for several years starting in 2005. That was the year council members adjusted the ordinances to prohibit sitting and lying down on sidewalks and other public places entirely. Before that, the rules required people to be blocking the right-of-way before officers could step in.

The change did not prevent council from working on other solutions, he said.

“In the meantime, while we’re working on the effort to try to solve the problem permanently, or at least better,” Leffingwell said, “we wanted to have a healthy, safe and clean downtown.”

‘An almost-immediate abatement’

A man solicits money from a driver on an Austin road in 2005. (KXAN File Photo)

The 2005 changes, Leffingwell said, followed a barrage of complaints council members heard from Austinites heading downtown.

Ordinances had been on the books since the 1990s to prevent people from blocking sidewalks and panhandling aggressively. Leffingwell voted to eliminate the obstruction requirement.

“From my vantage point, what I saw was an almost-immediate abatement of the problems and the complaints that were coming from people who use downtown regularly,” Leffingwell said.

Then, in 2017, a city audit found the rules created additional barriers for people trying to escape homelessness and might open up the city to lawsuits. The ordinances, the audit explained, also possibly threatened a person’s Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment.

In June of this year, council members voted to roll back the restrictions on camping and sleeping in public before reinstating some restrictions last week.

Leffingwell would like to see city council reverse course completely.

“I would support reinstating the previous ordinances, going back to the table, and trying to look for ways to address the homeless problem.”

Adler responds

“What we’ve been doing just hasn’t worked,” Mayor Adler said in an interview responding to Leffingwell’s criticism.

“What we know is that the old ordinances that the city had, when we wrote 18,000 tickets between 2014 and 2016, weren’t getting the job done. They actually weren’t helping us end homelessness in this city. We were only moving people around from one place they shouldn’t be to another place.”

The restrictions council put back in place last week, he said, are an important tool Austin Police Chief Brian Manley and his officers can use, but “somebody that’s not violating any of those laws, we shouldn’t be putting them in jail. We should be getting that person help.”

The changes over the summer brought people out of the shadows, he said, which made them safer, but also more visible to people who live and work in the city.

Next steps

The new restrictions go into effect on Monday, Oct. 28, and Adler expects to see improvements, especially around the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH).

But the changes weren’t enough to pull Gov. Greg Abbott back from his vow to step in with state resources to clean up encampments.

“That seems like a good solution to me,” Leffingwell said. “If the council is unable to come up with measures that provide that protection, public health and public safety, then I think it’s appropriate for the state to do it.”

Adler agrees that the state has a role to play. He’d like to see greater investment in housing and aid services to get people off the street, but he acknowledged

“We need to double and triple our efforts, as we are, to clean up those areas, to gather trash,” Adler said.

The old ordinances, Leffingwell said, allowed the city to do that, while not preventing council members from testing out other solutions.

It didn’t fix homelessness in the city, he said, but “that’s often what you have to do is settle for something that functions and works, as opposed to what the ideal you would like to have.”

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