AUSTIN (KXAN) — Changes to the way the City of Austin and its police department will handle homeless people go into effect Monday after the city passed an ordinance largely decriminalizing the act of sitting, laying or camping in public places.
Update: KXAN clarified with the city and Austin Police that the obstruction ordinance (what was previously known as sit-lie) only applies downtown but the changes to the camping and aggressive confrontation ordinance (formerly panhandling) apply citywide.
Proponents of the rule change have argued that this will help homeless people break the cycle of homelessness. A city audit report in November of 2017 found that Austin’s policies limiting camping, sitting, or lying in public spaces may make it more difficult for people to leave homelessness because of a criminal record or arrest warrants. The report also suggested that Austin’s current ordinances pose legal risks because of lawsuits faced by other cities with similar policies.
David Johnson with Grassroots Leadership said if a homeless person is cited for sleeping in a public place, “you have warrants, you’re arrested, then you lose your belongings because you don’t have a place to store them. Then it creates a cycle where you return to the streets.”
In June, Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition explained that these citations related to the camping/ sit-lie ordinance were actively prevention homeless individuals they worked with from getting into housing.
Public input over this ordinance has been tense and heated, at the June 20 council meeting, so many people signed up to speak — both for and against the changes– that the council didn’t get to vote on the changes until 2 a.m.
In an email to the police department, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley said he told City Council that APD “would be limited in our ability to address many of the quality of life calls we get (and usually handle without citation or arrest) given the new thresholds of hazardous or dangerous.”
The email laid out new guidelines for police officers responding to calls related to homeless people in the city.
Under the changes, APD can only arrest or ticket someone who is soliciting, camping, sitting, or lying in a public area if they present a public health or safety hazard or are blocking a walkway. The changes also make all aggressive confrontations offenses under city code, whether they are panhandling or not.
Camping on private property or in city parks is still not allowed, but camping in public spaces will be allowed.
APD officers will also have to give a person “notice” if they are violating the new camping rules and give them “reasonable amount of time to cease the violating behavior prior to taking enforcement action.”
Camping at City Hall was banned in 2012 after Occupy Austin protesters refused to leave for months. While that rule continues, for now, City Manager Spencer Cronk has been tasked with identifying safe camping areas and to propose reasonable limitations on camping. City Council will take that issue up in the months to come.
Homeless camps in Austin
KXAN visited several homeless camps around Austin Monday, many of the homeless individuals we spoke with were unaware of the new city rules and had been camping at their current locations long before the council took up a vote.
Under 183 in North Austin, KXAN ran into Brandon Graham who lives under the highway. He’s only been homeless for a few months, he grew up in Austin.
“A couple of poor choices, a couple of them were mainly work-related, I basically lost my job and things in the family fell apart,” Graham said. “Because of that and I didn’t have a support system once the issue of housing came up, so I wound up out here.”
He explained that he had tried camping in a number of places. He’s stayed at this one because he gets along with the other people camping nearby as well as the local business owners.
“That’s pretty much the main reason why every time I’ve moved that I’ve moved, starting from Parmer Lane to all over town, not necessarily the police but the community,” Graham said. “I would find myself at odds with a certain couple of stores or something like that, it would basically make it so that I need to move, incompatibility with the surroundings.”
Graham keeps his possessions tidy and minimal. Just a mattress and a few sorted belongings laid out on the cement. He likes it that way, reducing clutter allows him to pack up quickly in case he needs to move again.
But he says this is not the way he wants to live.
“Every day I’m working on a plan to get out of this situation, every day is not perfect, sometimes its a couple steps forward, one back,” Graham said. “But I’m definitely not doing this forever, hopefully in the next couple of weeks I’ll be taking steps to get back into a normal situation.”
He didn’t know about the change to the city ordinances, his cell phone doesn’t work currently and that’s been his means of checking the internet.
“I don’t worry about the police, we get along usually pretty well, but I could see why for my friends out there it would be a big relief,” he said. “You know, if they ask you to move, you literally have to take everything that you own — it can set you back a whole day, if not a couple, having to move spots so it will be a relief for a lot of people out here.”
When KXAN described the new ordinance to Graham, he replied, “the part that’s going to be an issue, is like how they define whether or not you are in someone’s way or posing a hazard.”
“I don’t know what all that exactly entails, I think that’s where the drama is going to be,” he said.
Graham realizes that people make certain assumptions when they see people like him living in encampments.
“We’re not all as crazy as we might seem,” he said. “Sometimes it’s frustrating being out here, that’s part of what causes the agitation sometimes, especially around noisy, busy places, especially for me.”\
“Some of us are really good people, just give us a chance, see what happens,” he said.
Ann Howard, the Executive Director of Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) said she hasn’t noticed any changes or complaints since the ordinance was passed by the council.
She explained that people have been camping all over Austin long before this ordinance, creating shelters to keep themselves warm and dry.
Greg McCormack, the executive director of Front Steps nonprofit contracted by the city to manage Austin’s Resource Center for the Homeless, said that the ARCH has not seen any impact because of these ordinances either.
“Around the ARCH there hasn’t been any enforcement in a good while, so it didn’t impact us anyway,” said McCormack. “We are more focused on why people are out there and why people are needing to camp.”
Assistant Chief Justin Newsom with Austin Police oversees the downtown sector where the largest number of homeless individuals live in the city.
“Anytime there’s change there’s a little bit of confusion,” Newsom explained.
He said that when news of the ordinance first came out, some officers didn’t understand how it was going to affect their day-to-day work.
“Now its kind of just a wait and see,” he said.
Newsom explained that anecdotally, some officers have told him about running into individuals who began camping on private property when the ordinance was first voted on. But camping on private property is not allowed even under the new ordinance. And Newsom added, outside of those stories, he hasn’t heard of the ordinance impacting the way people behave in public areas.
Newsom did bring up a program the Downtown Austin Alliance has done, paying for overtime officers to help patrol downtown. According to statistics from that program, between January 1 and April 30, 2019, the officers interacted with more than 8,000 people violating the solicitation, camping, and sit-lie ordinances. Of those interactions, 98% of the time, people voluntarily complied with officers’ requests to change their behavior — so no citation was issued.
“Now for every one of those [eight thousand interactions] that was camping or sit and lie, that ask won’t even happen because what they’re doing is not violating a law,” Newsom said. He added that this change in the rules could cut down on the number of times APD officers interact with homeless individuals.
He said where things get challenging for officers with this ordinance is determining what exactly constitutes a violation of health and safety. In some areas, the distinction is more clear.
Standing in front of a homeless encampment under I-35 right next to APD headquarters, Newsom talked with the people staying there. A few of the people staying there were vaguely familiar that city rules might be changing, but most did not know the specifics.
Pointing at the encampments there, Newsom explained to reporters, that APD has not enforced the camping ordinances in that area “for some time.”
“What you’re seeing right here was illegal, now it’s — this is perfectly legal within the current ordinances,” Newsom said.”I don’t see anything that presents a health and safety risk to anybody and they’re not blocking the path they’re just really choosing a spot to live in.”
“All of this is untested uncharted waters right now so there is going to be some grey area with those definitions,” he said.
Contacting the City about homelessness
According to Austin 3-1-1, Austin’s service request line, there are a large number of people contacting the city regarding homeless encampments after the vote on this ordinance took place.
From June 20 when the vote happened until June 30 in 2019, 3-1-1 received 105 service requests that included “homeless activity” (of those 961 were reporting homeless camps). In that same time period in 2018, there were 44 service requests with the keyword “homeless.” In 2017 there were 43 requests using the word “homeless.”
Correction: A previous version of the article said that there were 1,1,05 service requests in that period of time in 2019. We have updated the article with corrected information from the city.
Matilda Vichique-Sanchez, a business process specialist with Austin 3-1-1 told KXAN she believes the reason for the higher numbers in 2019 came from homelessness ordinances being a “hot topic” after the city council vote.
“It was in the news, it’s being talked about so obviously more people are calling,” she said. “Whereas this time last year, people weren’t talking about an ordinance, that’s the way I see it.”
Vichique-Sanchez noted that ahead of the vote on the new ordinance, 3-1-1 did change their options to allow their data to better document issues related to homelessness and to account for the fact that issues tied to homelessness often involve multiple city departments.
She explained that while the calls retrieved from the system in 2018 and 2017 had more of a range of subjects (some were homeless individuals calling for help others were reporting people at an intersection wiping the windshields of cars), the 2019 requests were mostly about reporting homeless camps.
Austin’s actual numbers of homeless and unsheltered individuals have increased since 2017 according to ECHO’s 2019 Point in Time Count, but nowhere near as dramatically as this spike in service requests to 311.
For the most part, the numbers of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people in Austin have persisted in a similar range since 2010 according to ECHO’s data.