Concerns about ‘tent cities’ rise after Austin loosens homeless ordinances

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AUSTIN (KXAN) ⁠— After more than three hours of hearing from the community, Austin City Council members voted in the early hours of Friday to approve changes to rules commonly referred to as “homeless” ordinances.

Moving forward, Austin police will only be allowed to arrest or ticket someone who is soliciting, camping, sitting, or lying in a public space if they present a public health or safety hazard, or are blocking a walkway.

IN-DEPTH: Austin City Council to vote on changes aimed at decriminalizing homelessness

Camping on private property or in city parks is still not allowed, but those who are camping in public spaces will not be subject to police enforcement.

MORE: Austin trying to find the best way to clean up homeless camps

People who are homeless will also be able to ask for money, but they cannot be “aggressive,” a word that was specifically written into the ordinance.

“We’re taking a giant step in the right direction,” said David Johnson with Grassroots Leadership. He testified at the meeting in favor of the changes.

“I also think it will allow those who do not have permanent housing to more safely — and with a high level of security and comfort — navigate the unwelcoming streets of Austin,” he said. “Those who are living day to day under the burden and threat of homelessness let us know that they’re harassed by the police.”

Johnson said criminalizing homelessness is counterproductive. He explained, if a homeless person is cited for sleeping in a public place, “you have warrants, you’re arrested, then you lose your belongings because you don’t have a place to store them. Then it creates a cycle where you return to the streets.”

“Every week that we go by and leave these laws on the books we know we’re going to continue something that we all acknowledge here is wrong,” said Greg Casar, council member for District 4.

Downtown and University of Texas stakeholders who were opposed to the changes said they were concerned it would lead to more aggressive encounters with those who are homeless.

One woman who lives downtown told the City Council:

“It is scary to be a woman at times on the street by yourself. We were chased. It’s not pleasant to be so frightened.”

Austin Police Chief Brian Manley said the changes would mean police will have “limited opportunities to take action.”

“Now, we’ll have to establish that the underlying conduct posed a danger or hazard to someone before we can take any action,” he said.

Manley declined to say whether he was for or against the changes.

He said there would be “operational changes” within the department, including a new training bulletin that would prepare officers to interact differently with those who were previously breaking the law.

Some people also expressed concern loosening the rules would lead to more people setting up tents in public places.

Mayor Steve Adler said, however: “We don’t want tent cities in our city, and I intend to be working together with our council to make sure that kind thing doesn’t happen.”

Along with the ordinance changes, the council also voted to ask City Manager Spencer Cronk to make some recommendations by late summer on how Austin can lower the number of people who are homeless.

What the council wanted to know included how Austin can designate certain areas for safe camping, parking areas for people who sleep in their cars and seeing if there should be any reasonable time limitations on camping.

When asked about seeing what cities like Seattle experienced — so-called “tent cities” popping up — the mayor said, “I just don’t think we’re going to see that kind of thing happen over an eight-week period of time. If it does, there’s going to be a lot that we’re going to learn and apply, but I just don’t see that kind of thing happening.”

Thursday night, the council also approved a new south Austin homeless shelter.

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