Austin City Council to debate homeless camping; latest proposal suggests different levels of enforcement

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin City Council is meeting Wednesday to talk about where people who are homeless can’t camp, sit or lie. They will also hear from the public at the 1 p.m. meeting.

The camping, sitting and lying ordinance has been a hotly debated issue since the council voted over the summer to decriminalize those activities in public places.

The latest proposal on the table divides the city into different categories for varying levels of enforcement.

Mayor Steve Adler and Council Members Greg Casar, Kathie Tovo and Ann Kitchen said they all back the latest recommendation. They called it a “phased approach” proposal.

Last week, Council Members Tovo and Kitchen had backed one version of limitations, and Adler and Casar had countered with a slightly different plan.

The latest proposal all four agreed on “establishes and phases in restrictions for three categories of places.”

  • Category 1:
    • Enforceable immediately.
    • Existing prohibitions apply in areas considered unsafe, parks, private properties, construction zones, etc.
    • Could include some streets downtown and Guadalupe Street and West 24th Street near the University of Texas at Austin
    • To be determined: what it means to not block a sidewalk
  • Category 2:
    • Effective after housing and services are offered and signage posted
    • Could include areas surrounding the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH) and the proposed south Austin shelter
    • Mentions sloped areas under highways
    • Could include streets like Rio Grande Avenue, San Antonio Avenue, San Gabriel Street, Nueces Street and Red River Street
  • Category 3:
    • To be considered when the city has achieved its goal of ending homelessness
    • Could prohibit camping on sidewalks entirely and in all busy areas

“We can certainly ticket and arrest people that are in those areas that they just should not be in because it’s just not safe,” said Adler.

He said Category 2 is about creating places where people can be as they’re being told to move from where they’re currently.

“As a community, we just can’t continue to move those people down the street where they’re still engaging in the same kind of conduct,” Adler explained. “We have to help those people move off the street, not just down the street.”

Outside the ARCH, dozens of people camp every day on sidewalks nearby. Adler said, “We need to go see who’s there, maybe do a little census, do what we did when we got the success we did with veterans. We focused on individual people and came up with individual solutions.”

Solutions to homelessness

Bill Brice, Vice President of Investor Relations at the Downtown Austin Alliance said perceptions matter. “The Downtown Austin Alliance wants downtown to be a safe place, but also where people feel safe all the time,” he said.

But, according to Brice, that hasn’t been the case lately.

“Visitors that are leaving hotels, whether that’s individuals that are travelers or groups for meetings and conventions that are being hosted in Austin…Some are saying they’ll never come back to Austin,” he said.

Brice told KXAN reasonable limitations on camping are needed.

“One of the things that we’d really like to see that hasn’t been recommended yet is that you should not be able to sit, lie or camp in front of an open business.”

He also wants the city to make clear rules, so police can actually enforce them.

When asked about defining the specifics, such as what is a clear path, three feet or five feet of sidewalk, Adler told KXAN: “I also think that’s very important for the council to come up with, a specific number so that both the police and people know what the standard is.”

City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said he hopes after this week, the council can provide sufficient clarity for police officers, so they know exactly when someone is illegally camping in public places.

But after that, he said coming up with strategies to actually end homelessness must be left to the experts.

“The council is not the place where we should be inventing solutions,” he said. “I want our staff take the resources and direction they’ve already been given and come back with the implementation plan.”

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