On Thursday, June 20th the City of Austin approved an ordinance that would amend the city’s codes on camping in public areas, solicitation, sitting or lying down on public sidewalks and camping in downtown Austin.
Under the new ordinance, according to KXAN, the Austin Police Department will not be allowed to give our tickets or arrest homeless individuals who are soliciting, camping, sitting or lying in a public space in Austin unless they are causing a public health or safety hazard. An offense would only qualify for an arrest or ticket if they’re endangering the health and safety someone else or if they’re “intentionally making a public area impassable or unsable”.
Under this new ordinance, an Austin police officer will have to provide written noticed before issuing a ticket or making an arrest when someone’s health or safety is immediately under danger or question.
The reasoning for an updated ordinance on the city’s camping, solicitation and sitting or lying down policies includes an attempt to remove the criminalization of homelessness and to shift enforcement away from ticketing and arresting the Austin homeless community for something they can’t control.
Council Member Greg Casar is quoted in an article from KXAN, “The fact of the matter is, we currently have criminal laws – which say it is criminal just because you’re homeless – that aren’t targeting dangerous behavior but are just criminalizing the fact that you are homeless,” said Casar. “And by changing those laws, we can better enhance health and safety, we can better fit within the U.S. Constitution and we can get people in homes instead of in handcuffs.”
According to a 2017 report from a City Auditor, policies that affect camping, sitting or lying in public spaces actually make it harder for people to move away from homelessness because they have a criminal record or arrest warrants that they wouldn’t have if they weren’t homeless.
Mayor Steve Adler agreed that changes needed to be made in how the City of Austin handles homelessness.
As reported by the Austin-American Statesman, he said, “We issued 18,000 tickets between 2014 and 2106, and it didn’t work,” Adler said. “This isn’t what we should be doing.”
Executive Director of ECHO (Ending Community Homelessness Coalition) Ann Howard agrees that criminal records and citations placed on Austin’s homeless community for camping or sitting and lying can negatively affect the possibility of a homeless individuals qualifying for temporary or rental housing. For homeless individuals who get a ticket and can’t pay for it can oftentimes end up with a warrant out for their arrest.
“When there’s a client who has a criminal history, any criminal history makes you less competitive for rental housing,” she said, as reported by KXAN. “We spend a lot of time at ECHO working with landlords to help people mitigate criminal history.”
This ordinance surrounding camping and sitting or lying in public areas throughout Austin comes shortly after the Public Works Department for the City of Austin began cleaning up debris under various overpasses throughout Austin, including areas where homeless individuals have created small communities and camps. However, the Public Works Department did assure that no people would be removed or arrested, and that belongings put in provided bags would not be touched by the cleanup crews.
In addition, during the same Austin City Council meeting that approved the new ordinance, a purchase of a building on Ben White Boulevard was approved to become a new homeless shelter. The shelter will be a secure housing-focused property, and is not intended for drop-ins.
While the ordinance and subsequent other announcements have been good news for Austin’s homeless community, opposition from state government has been swift to follow.
On June 23rd, three days after the ordinance was passed by the Austin City Council, Governor Greg Abbot tweeted the following:
“If Austin – or any other Texas city – permits camping on city streets it will be yet another local ordinance the State of Texas will override. At some point cities must start putting public safety & common sense first. There are far better solutions for the homeless & citizens.”
According to the Austin-American Statesman, Mayor Steve Adler said in a text message that the city would continue to monitor possible public safety threats. “But what do we do with folks experiencing homelessness that are presenting neither such risks or harazards?” said Adler. “The person sitting up against the building, dealing with swirling demons the rest of us can’t see, needs our help. The answer is not to arrest them. We need to be able to tell people where they can’t be, but also where they can be.”
This isn’t the first time the state of Texas has reversed a decision made by the city of Austin.
The city of Austin had a ban on the use of plastic bags for groceries and other items, but in 2018 it was found that a similar ban in Laredo violated state law by the Texas Supreme Court. As of July of 2018, Austin has no longer been able to enforce its ban on plastic bags.
At this time, there is no word as to what Governor Abbot or the state of Texas plans on doing to supersede Austin’s new, laxer, ordinance. But for the meantime, Austin’s homeless community can rest a little easier knowing they won’t be arrest or ticketed for camping, sitting or laying in Austin.