Austin's ordinances on panhandling, camping could open city to lawsuits

AUSTIN (KXAN) -- A newly released audit, scheduled to be presented to the Audit and Finance Committee Wednesday morning, reveals cities with similar ordinances related to homelessness have lawsuits on their hands.

The lawsuits challenge the enforcement of city ordinances related to panhandling, camping and sit/lie because when shelters are full, people still need a place to stay. When shelters are full, the ordinances can create legal risks, the audit explains.

The audit named an example from August of this year, when a U.S. district judge ordered the city of Houston to temporarily stop enforcing its camping ordinance because the shelters were full.

The audit is the first in a series of audits on the city's homelessness assistance, meant to determine if city ordinances align with efforts to get people into support services and housing. Future reports plan to take a closer look at coordination of Austin's homelessness assistance efforts, how the city allocates resources to address homelessness and the outcomes of those efforts.

There's been a 14 percent increase since 2013 in the number of people who use homelessness assistance services.

The city ordinances may also create barriers for people attempting to get out of homelessness because if a person fails to appear in court, an arrest warrant is issued.

In Austin, this is the case for 90 percent of the citations violating the city's anti-camping, sit/lie and anti-panhandling ordinances. The citations "do not appear to effectively or efficiently connect people experiencing homelessness to services" and in addition, may increase the risk of the city being sued, the audit states.

Data from the Downtown Austin Community Court shows there were about 18,000 tickets issued for the city's rules against camping, sit and lie or panhandling between 2014 and 2016. Arrest warrants were eventually issued for more that 11,000 of the cases after failure to appear in court.

KXAN spoke with a man named Ross in south Austin, near Sunrise Community Church. He says he's been homeless less than a year.

"They have a law saying you can't sit down. So if you don't have anywhere to live and all the homeless shelters are full, then where do you go? Do you walk in a circle 24-hours a day?" he said.

For months, he says that's what it feels like he's been doing. Going in circles.

"We get herded like cattle," Ross said. "You have to sleep and if you slow down to sleep and you go to jail for it, which I've done, that's pretty much where you get to sleep."

KXAN met with the director of Sunrise Community Church's Homeless Navigation Center, Mark Hilbelink, who said the reality is the city just doesn't have a plan. Not one that's seen far-reaching success, if you ask him.

"If we don't come up with a plan and we just force people to continue to move and play citywide whack-a-mole, it's not going to create a solution that's going to be good for anybody," Hilbelink said.

Miles away from downtown, Hilbelink says he sees inconsistencies in enforcement.

"Right now what's happening is that people get their camps destroyed, they move on to a new place for a little while and they're permitted to stay there in a lot of cases and after a while for no particular reason, they're moved on again," Hilbelink.

Another risk factor the audit identified stems from a 2015 Supreme Court ruling that's recently been used to challenge elements of panhandling laws. Namely, ruling against cities that limit when panhandling can occur and how far people have to be from a certain location. Austin's ordinance has both restrictions.

Executive director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) Ann Howard told KXAN, "Even the best written ordinances won't end homelessness. We need to scale up our ability to connect panhandlers to jobs and homeless to housing. Housing programs that connect people to income and healthcare create stability and prevent returns to homelessness."

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