Austin City Council floats compromise proposal to restrict camping ordinance

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin City Council began the process Wednesday to curtail and “clarify” a city ordinance allowing homeless people to camp, sit, and panhandle in many parts of the city.

Several members of the council released plans, and by Wednesday afternoon they had drafted a compromise proposal. But council members are still discussing details and on Wednesday evening, it didn’t appear any specific change had six votes (out of eleven) to pass.

The compromise includes an immediate “encampment response strategy” to have teams and services reach out to people in high-priority camps — like the area around the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless and under the Ben White Boulevard overpass from Lamar Boulevard to Manchaca Road.

The plan also includes provisions for short-term shelters and cracking down on unsafe camping practices.

Earlier this summer, council lifted restrictions on where homeless people can camp. It was designed to be temporary until long-term homeless housing was built. But intense backlash came as many thought the council closed their eyes to crimes committed by homeless people.

People lining up to talk on the Dias today at city hall regarding the homeless camping ordinance. (KXAN Photo)

In the past, police officers would ticket homeless people were camping or sitting in public places. Many of those tickets were never paid, leading to criminal warrants. Advocates and council saw that as continuing an endless circle through the criminal justice system, soaking up city resources and setting an entire class of people back on the way.

The policy embroiled Austin in an intensely political fight. Leaders of Austin Police Association, the Travis County Republican Party, and many business leaders urged the council to back peddle.

Austin City Hall as people filter in to speak on the homelessness issue. (KXAN Photo)

A public hearing began at 1 p.m. Wednesday on a proposed plan to have different ordinances in different areas of the city or phasing the ordinance throughout. The details are expected to be finalized by Friday at 9 a.m. when the council votes.

Councilmembers Tovo, Kitchen, Casar, and Mayor Adler support a phased-in approach but there is no agreement on the details according to Councilmember Tovo. Many on council see this as the promised second step of the process.

Criminal justice advocates say otherwise.

Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday prepares to speak to city council
(KXAN Photo)

Chas Moore from the Austin Justice Coalition sent an email blast to supporters urging people to come to the city council and asking them to “stand firm on its decision to decriminalize and end homelessness.” He also calls on council to provide homeless housing and services as well as increase trash pickup, toilets, and storage lockers.

The broad brushstrokes of the phased-in proposal were released Tuesday.

  • 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

Turning those “could”s into specific policy will be a testy exchange until the Friday vote.

The group “Take Back Austin” filters into city hall to speak against the current homeless policy (KXAN photo)

The hearing

Scores of people came early to sign up and tell the Austin City Council what they want. Some want a complete reversal of the new policy because there weren’t enough shelters in place when the city decided to allow more camping.

Mark Garcia is from SAFE and Take Back Austin.

“I think you should have a plan in place before putting things in motion. It’s common sense and it’s fiscal responsibility,” said Garcia.

South Austin resident Daren Raykovich said his family dealt with an incident in which people who appeared to be homeless and high on drugs trespassed at their home and were hanging out on their roof.

He said his kids also saw homeless people defecating in public places.

“I’m just kind of putting the puzzle pieces together. Before then, everything was fine. After that, my kids are seeing stuff and I’m having to have deep conversations with a 5- and 3-year-old that I don’t, shouldn’t have to have for a couple more years,” he said.

Councilmember Kathie Tovo, who represents downtown, tried to thread the needle. She supports a proposal that restricts camping on some streets but not others.

“What we’re trying to do is strike that balance again making sure that health and safety issues for the individual experiencing homeless as well as the general public,” said Tovo.

But some on council, like Jimmy Flannigan, say we shouldn’t have different rules for different streets.

“It’s not a problem that’s going to be solved overnight. And it’s not going to be a problem solved from the dias,” said Flannigan.

Timothy Bray, a board member of AURA, An Austin for Everyone, said, “Instead of wasting resources, going after people that are just trying to sleep, just spend those resources on helping those people get out of homelessness and addressing the actual behavior people are concerned about.”

Advocates backing de-criminalizing camping and panhandling see this as the council swaying under public pressure. They don’t want decisions to be made on politics.

“We’re turning into a bunch of yuppies. Right,” said Moore. “The fact that we’re having a conversation about basic humanity. These people have nowhere to go and we’re forcing them to go back to jail. We’re dehumanizing them and calling them trash. It’s disgusting that this is what we’ve become.”

In short: this is a sticky issue.

There’s also the very open possibility of a ballot referendum to scrap any current policy in May. On Wednesday, leaders from SAGE and Take Back Austin floated the idea about attempting to recall specific city council members. They’re scheduled to vote on the current ordinance on Friday but this political struggle is far from over at city hall.

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