AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk sent the mayor and city council his recommended restrictions for where homeless people shouldn’t be allowed camp in Austin.
“Individuals experiencing homelessness are living/sleeping outside and are occupying spaces that are not safe for themselves and will place their possessions in areas then create unsafe conditions for themselves and the public,” Cronk and the Homeless Strategy Office wrote in a new memo Friday.
Since changes that went into effect July 1 eased restrictions on camping, sitting and lying in public, there has been a lot of feedback from community members and law enforcement.
Some have asked the city to tighten the reigns. In July, Gov. Greg Abbott and Mayor Steve Adler feuded on Twitter over the issue as well. Earlier this month, Adler and City Council members pitched a new housing plan for homeless people at a town hall at the Austin Convention Center.
The Friday memo details three major areas where they believe restrictions should be put in place. The limitations would be the latest revision to a June ordinance change that made public camping legal in Austin with a few exceptions.
High pedestrian traffic areas
In May 2019, City Council adopted restrictions for e-scooters and e-bikes to ensure that there are at least 3 feet of clearance for pedestrians, especially in places with high foot traffic.
In the memo Friday, Cronk and HSO recommend the city use similar guidelines to restrict homeless camping in areas where a lot of people walk. If adopted, it would prevent homeless people from camping, sitting or lying in a way that would obstruct traffic, transit stop shelters and platforms.
High vehicular traffic areas
“Individuals experiencing homelessness are at higher risk for pedestrian fatalities,” they wrote in the memo. “A key reason for this is the exposure risk present when someone is nearby or in-between moving vehicles for long periods of time, and areas adjacent to higher speed roadways are particularly dangerous.”
They say medians, median islands and intersection islands are particularly dangerous and where there is the highest exposure risk.
“There are some larger, flat areas with some underpass infrastructure with significant buffer distances from moving traffic which are relatively safer locations,” they wrote in the memo.
High flood risk areas
Austin is a flood-prone city and has seen several flash flood events in recent years. After consulting the Watershed Protection Department, Cronk and HSO recommend that homeless people should not be able to camp in areas that have a high risk of flooding.
Earlier in this week, the University of Texas at Austin Police Chief David Carter urged city leaders to stop homeless people from camping along the perimeter of campus and in the West Campus area. The memo Friday did not mention any restrictions near UT.
“Homelessness is a complex issue that requires a variety of solutions working in concert with one another,” city officials wrote in the memo.”
How will this be enforced?
These limitations on camping won’t be criminally enforced.
The city manager’s memo says the city will us non-criminal remedies to comply with the new limitations.
Essentially, groups like the Homeless Outreach Street Team (HOST) will work to met the needs of those experiencing homelessness before they can violate any ordinances.
On Thursday, we reported that APD had nearly stopped giving out citations for certain examples of public camping that remained illegal after the ordinance change.
City council’s next steps
Mayor Adler spoke with KXAN after seeing the memo. He said, “I think it’s really helpful. I think it would’ve been nice if we had greater specificity, too, but I still hope and expect that the council will add greater specificity.”
The city manager’s memo did not list streets or neighborhoods. Adler said he expects city council members will discuss those specifics in coming weeks.
“It’s reasonable, I think, for us to say people shouldn’t camp on medians or islands,” Adler said.
He said one of many factors he might consider is a map like this. The map shows where the city had banned bicycling on sidewalks. Included are Congress Avenue, 6th Street and Guadalupe Street by the University of Texas.
Adler explained the Austin Transportation Department is in the process of updating the map, but he is asking them, “What kind of criteria are you applying for dismount zones? My hope is we can bring in maybe that same list or some of the same criteria to be used.”
The council is expected to discuss potential limitations at its meeting on September 19.
Adler said while the council focuses on camping rules in coming days, he wants the city to keep exploring longer-term solutions to homelessness.
Earlier this summer, Adler traveled to Los Angeles and Seattle. He said something he noticed some West Coast cities use is storage lockers.
“One of the challenges we have in this city is it’s really hard for people experiencing homelessness to keep track of their stuff,” he said.
“I’m so glad he said that,” said Greg McCormack, Executive Director of Front Steps. The nonprofit operates a shelter downtown, ARCH. McCormack said the harsh reality is homeless people lose any stuff left unattended.
“Almost immediately,” he said. “People are watching. They see it. There may be nothing of value but they’re going to go through it.”
Adler said storage lockers and mobile showers are some of the solutions he wants to explore.