Where do homeless people sleep in Austin? The answer isn’t so obvious

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — On July 1, the City of Austin entered into uncharted territory as changes to the city’s no sit/lie, no camping and panhandling ordinances went into effect.

That means it is now legal for people who are homeless to set up camps or sleep on public sidewalks, but you can not block the sidewalk, and you can’t be a public health or safety hazard.

The changes were designed to decriminalize homelessness, but some people have been worrying they’ll lead to “tent cities” popping up all over town.

So KXAN asked volunteers what they’ve observed over the years in areas that are not right by ARCH, a homeless shelter in downtown.

Once a year, Point In Time Count finds out how many people are sleeping out on the streets unsheltered. To do so, volunteers comb the streets to find people all over the city.

“It wasn’t terribly cold,” said Dylan Shubitz who was a team lead this year for an area west of downtown. “If I remember correctly, it was foggy and misty, but not too wet, not too uncomfortable for us walking around. Maybe more so for the people sleeping outside.”

2019’s result indicated homelessness was on the rise for the second year in a row.

Monday, KXAN went with Shubitz to an area his team covered, which was along MoPac near downtown.

He showed us some spots hidden behind trees where people camped. In one spot, he noticed a second tent was set up. But in others, he said some campsites were no longer there.

“It’s dangerous living outside,” he said.

Another volunteer, Edward McHorse, said, “Most of what we saw were people sleeping maybe on a park bench, but by and large, that was too exposed. You would see people either under an underpass, or you’d find someone up against the building.”

McHorse said he’s been working the Point In Time Count for nearly a decade now. This year, he counted the number of homeless people near the Hike and Bike Trail.

“The constants are you see people trying to find shelter,” He said. “Maybe what’s changed is as Austin’s developed, you have fewer little green spaces, so I think that’s pushed people a little more out into the open than they were before.”

He said people who are homeless tend to find hidden spots to sleep. “For their own protection, they’re generally trying not to be in a spot where they’re easy to find,” McHorse explained.

McHorse said changing the ordinances is like putting on a BandAid.

“When we’re dealing with these ordinances, we’re dealing with symptoms,” he said. “It’s because we have people who have no place to be, we’re having to talk about where can you sit, where can you lie, where can you camp.”

He hopes the city will keep working on a more permanent solution like shelters and housing.

“If we do more of that, we won’t have to talk so much about where people can sleep on the street,” he said.

Police enforcement under the changes

Even with the changes, it’s important to note that it is still illegal to trespass on private property.

In addition to camping now being allowed in most public places, asking for money is now allowed as well, but doing it aggressively isn’t.

“So if a person approaches you, asks you whatever, and they do so in an aggressive manner or continue to follow you or make you feel unsafe, regardless of what the ask is, then it fits the definition of aggressive confrontation,” explained Justin Newsom, Austin Police Assistant Chief.

He said police will still respond if someone reports a person camping or sleeping in a public place, but now, the responding officer will have to determine if that person is being a public health or safety hazard or blocking the right of way.

“That’s a tough legal standard for an officer just standing there and looking at a person in a tent to make,” he said. “He or she will have to articulate in an offense report what it was they saw that led them to believe that met that standard.”

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