Austin Could Change Its Homelessness Rules Today. Here's Everything You Need To Know.

Oct 17, 2019

The Austin City Council is set to vote today on an ordinance that could reinstate bans on camping and resting in public. The vote comes after months of scrutiny and outright divisiveness after Council voted to rollback its previous ordinances in June.

Council's June vote undid previous bans on camping, sitting and lying down in public.

Supporters of that decision argue the Austin City Council decriminalized homelessness and eliminated a lasting obstacle for people trying to transition off the streets. Tickets for violating the ordinances were nearly always unpaid and resulted in arrest warrants.

Opponents of the decision say the rollback has emboldened behavior like public drug use and public defecation in the downtown area and elsewhere, which present public health and safety risks. They also argue the Council went off half-cocked and didn't fully consider public input in their decision-making process.

Since the revised rules went into effect July 1, more homeless Austinites have camped out in public and not in, say, urban forests or along creeks like they once did. That's led to more encampments at underpasses and along high-traffic roads – fueling assertions that Austin legalized tent cities. More people have also been resting on sidewalks, particularly in the downtown area.

Today, Austin's City Council will revisit the rules. Here's a rundown of what Council members could vote on and what might come next.

What exactly are they voting on?

Council members could vote on an ordinance and two resolutions related to homelessness.

The draft ordinance from Council members Ann Kitchen, Kathie Tovo, Alison Alter and Leslie Pool would, they argue, add clarity to the rules. After a tense work session on Tuesday, the draft now includes input from other Council members.

Currently, it's legal to sit, lie down or camp in public unless someone is completely blocking a sidewalk or is posing an immediate health or safety hazard to themselves or others. It's still illegal to camp on city parkland or on private property.

It's important to remember that the ordinance contains overlapping but not identical bans: one for camping and one for obstructing a sidewalk.

The proposed new ordinance would ban sitting or lying down within 15 feet of the entrance of a business or residence. It would also ban camping and resting near the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless and near the city's planned shelter in South Austin, as well as on ramps for people using wheelchairs.

Camping would specifically be prohibited on sidewalks, in and along creek beds and in areas considered to be at high risk of wildfires in the Kitchen ordinance.

An earlier draft of the ordinance included prescriptive bans on camping on streets downtown and near the University of Texas at Austin campus, but that specificity was a non-starter for some Council members. 

The draft ordinance also directs the city manager to come back to Council and suggest specific, high-traffic streets on which to ban camping and work to nail down how the city should regulate structures at encampments, which have become more elaborate since the new city rules took effect.

On top of all that, Mayor Adler offered his own version of the ordinance Tuesday – one that does away with the obstruction penalty altogether and folds it into the camping ban. And Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza has a proposal that amends that ordinance, as well.

All told, six different iterations of this ordinance have been proposed in the last week.

Mayor Adler said on Wednesday night that Council members will first lay out Kitchen's ordinance, then consider his substitute, as well, tacking on amendments to both. It's worth noting that Kitchen said she didn't want Council to consider a substitute at their work session Tuesday. 

City Council will also vote on two resolutions – one from Tovo and another from Adler – that could direct the city manager to look into finding motel and hotel space for housing for people living in the city's most visible encampments, placing trash cans at camps and expanding tax-based revenue options to help fund initiatives to reduce homelessness.

What's next?

All of this is happening under the shadow of Gov. Greg Abbott's threat to intervene if Austin doesn't change its homelessness rules. He's calling on Council to go back to the pre-July ordinances. In a letter, Abbott cited Austin Police Chief Brian Manley's suggestion earlier this month that the city revert to the old rules. The governor gave Council until the end of the month to act. 

Manley's suggestion comes as the Austin Police Department struggles to enforce the new rules. Officers essentially have to interpret the law as they're enforcing it, Manley argued. Under the old rules, if someone was camped out or sitting down in public, an officer would ask a person to move and give them time to collect their belongings. If they came back and they weren't moved or if they weren't cooperative, the officer could give the person a ticket.

Now, officers have to triage whether someone is a health or safety risk or determine whether they're completely obstructing a right-of-way. Manley announced new training guidelines that could give officers more clarity on when someone or their belongings are a physical obstruction, and he teed up the possibility that police could remove furniture at camps.

Gov. Abbott threatened to intervene by Nov. 1, and any possible ordinance revision from City Council is expected to take 15 days to go into effect. If Council members approve something today, it would just meet the governor's deadline.