Austin City Council members say it’s time to act on homelessness

Austin
Southeast Austin neighbors concerned with homeless camp under bridge

AUSTIN (KXAN) — On Tuesday, members of the Austin City Council released a letter saying that it’s time for the council to take action on homelessness in the city.

According to the letter, Council members Kathie Tovo, Ann Kitchen, Alison Alter and Leslie Pool are proposing an ordinance clarifying that homeless camping will not be allowed in unsafe areas that pose risks to public health and safety.

In June, Austin City Council ruled to allow people experiencing homelessness to camp, sit and panhandle in public places — and the change has proven to be increasingly divisive among Austinites and local and state leaders.

MORE: Is Austin’s homeless problem really that bad?

Those “unsafe” areas will include sidewalks, right-of-way along streets with high pedestrian or car traffic, traffic medians, sloped underpasses and areas around emergency shelters.

Camping in culverts, creeks, river beds and high fire-risk areas also pose health and safety risks.

“Our community is asking for clarity on these ordinances,” Alter wrote. “With these proposals, we have an opportunity to reinforce guidance from the city manager and the police department that addresses public health and safety concerns and takes concrete steps to help our homeless neighbors. Our goal is to keep everyone safe and healthy, whether they are housed or not.”

MORE: APD Chief Brian Manley requests old homelessness ordinances be put back in place

The ordinance directs law enforcement to use non-criminal enforcement measures and involve social service providers, whenever possible. This strategy works with Tovo’s proposed resolution (item #30) endorsing an Encampment Response Strategy, a plan for connecting people experiencing homelessness in high-priority encampments to housing.

The proposal comes after months of controversy over Austin’s homelessness regulations, which some — including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott — have said has become a crisis.

Earlier this month, Abbott sent a letter to Austin Mayor Steve Adler, threatening to intervene via state agencies to fix “the growing homelessness crisis.” In the letter, the Governor states:

“Further inaction by you [Adler] and the Austin City Council will leave me no choice other than to use the tools available to the State of Texas to ensure that people are protected from health and safety concerns caused by the Austin homeless policies.”

In an exclusive interview with KXAN’s Phil Prazan, Abbott explained that his threat was not a bluff, and that continuing as Austin has poses a threat to public health and safety.

In the letter, Council member Pool says, in part: Austin has always been a compassionate and welcoming city, and my hope is that we can reach agreement across the dais that restores our civic equilibrium.”

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