Austin City Council could discuss and repeal panhandling ordinance

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin City Council is scheduled to discuss and possibly vote Thursday on an ordinance that will change the city’s rules about aggressive panhandling. 

The proposal repeals Austin’s anti-panhandling ordinance, which: 

  • Bans aggressive solicitation
  • Bans panhandling at bus stops, near schools and near ATM’s or banks
  • In downtown, panhandling is banned between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.

The proposal also eases restrictions of Austin’s “no sit/no lie” rules and camping rules. Those ordinances, passed in 2005 and updated in 2011, keep people from sitting or lying down in right of ways and sidewalks downtown. Exceptions apply to people who have disabilities or are experiencing medical emergencies. 

“Austin’s service providers, housing advocates, legal advocates, and our public safety officials all agree: We won’t be able to arrest away our city’s homelessness problem,” said Council Member Greg Casar. “Asking for money, sitting or lying down in public, and sleeping in tents are basic requirements of survival, especially while homeless.”

Mark Hilbelink, Director of Sunrise Homeless Navigation Center, told KXAN these rules unnecessarily criminalize homelessness. 

“They can serve as inhibitors toward people getting the help that they actually need,” he explained.

According to a 2017 city audit, Austin issued about 18,000 citations in two years to people who violated the panhandling, no sit/lie and camping rules. Most of them didn’t show up for their court dates, which then led to warrants being issued. 

“They can cause a lot of damage in your life than do good for the society,” said Heilbelink about the warrants.

He said, “There might be programs you’re excluded from like housing programs. There might be job opportunities you might get passed up for because you have those warrants that are listed.”

Instead of criminalizing homelessness, Hilbelink said, the city should look for different ways, such as creating more shelters and addressing the housing and health care needs to solve homelessness. 

Mayor of Austin Steve Adler agreed this is a complex issue, but he said the city needs more time to make decisions. “The most important thing for us right now is to recognize that this is a multifaceted problem, and we’re going to solve it if we bring everybody together.”

Monday, the Downtown Austin Alliance also called for taking more time to discuss the issue before repealing the panhandling rule and changing the no sit/lie and camping rules. 

“We’d like to slow down the process to provide that opportunity for community input,” said Bill Brice, the Downtown Austin Alliance’s Vice President of Investor Relations.

“In the city that historically has tremendous dialogue around every issue, especially political issues, issues involving the government, we feel it’s critically important to allow the community to have dialogue around this issue,” Brice said. 

Brice said he’s concerned repealing the panhandling ordinance right now would lead to public health and public safety issues.

He added the number one reason visitors say they will not return to downtown is aggressive panhandling.

“We hear every week, story after story of people who are here, whether visitors or locals, who are aggressively panhandled, and I mean in ways that are threatening, being touched, being screamed at, being threatened with physical violence. These are real concerns the community has,” Brice said. 

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