Austin Has New Rules On Panhandling, Camping And Resting In Public. Here's What That Means.

Jul 1, 2019

Revisions to Austin's rules against panhandling, camping and sitting or lying down in public are in effect.

Austinites have expressed concern about how the rules will impact those experiencing homelessness and how officers will enforce the laws. KUT asked the Austin Police Department to help clarify things.

How are these rules different from the old ones?

In a broad sense, city law previously banned people from asking for money aggressively, sitting or lying down in public and camping in public.

The Austin City Council’s new rules take out language that, opponents had argued, was unconstitutional and targeted specific, necessary behavior of people who had no place to sleep or needed to ask for money.

Does this mean people will be able to panhandle anywhere?

The new rules ban aggressive confrontation – not aggressive panhandling, or solicitation, specifically. Confronting someone in an aggressive manner – meaning, there's unwanted contact or offensive language or the person blocks someone or follows them – is against the law.

The new rules adopt a broader definition of "public areas" – meaning a "sidewalk, street, highway, park, parking lot, alleyway, pedestrian way, or the common area of a school, hospital, apartment house, office building, transport facility, or shop." Panhandling is allowed in these areas as long as it's not confrontational.

Does this mean people will be able to camp in public?

Austin Police Department Asst. Chief Justin Newsom says, yes, in some places.

It's still illegal to camp on private property. The new rule also prohibits camping on publicly owned parkland, not just places that meet the city's definition of a public area. (And, as The Statesman points out, at City Hall.)

"Any public space now ... that you are not completely blocking the ability for someone to move past – say, a sidewalk downtown – that is legal for you to camp on now," Newsom says, "as long as it's not endangering someone's health or safety."

APD training guidelines say "camping will generally be permitted in outdoor areas that are accessible to the public, including parking lots, alleyways, and sidewalks."

As with the old ordinances, officers are required to give a warning before issuing a ticket.

Does this mean people will be able to sit or lie down on sidewalks?

Yes and no. As the department's guidelines say, sidewalks are considered a public area. If someone is completely blocking a sidewalk or endangering the public health and safety of others, they need to move. City law now doesn't explicitly ban sitting or lying down; it bans obstructing a sidewalk.

So, someone has to be completely blocking a path or a doorway and "the person is materially endangering the health or safety of another person or of themselves, or they are intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly making impassable or impeding the use of a public area, making use of the area unreasonably inconvenient or hazardous," the department's guidelines say.

"If you're sitting on the sidewalk, up against the wall and there's 5 feet of space ... people can pass by you, then you're not breaking the law under the new ordinance," Newsom said. "Under the old ordinance you were. Because just the very act of sitting on the sidewalk or lying on the sidewalk, that in itself was all that was needed with the previous ordinance."

The new rules are in line with state law, which bans obstructing sidewalks and public rights of way.

Is this going to change how APD enforces the law?

Yes.

Previously, Newsom says, police recognized enforcing the laws wasn't necessarily the most productive solution to help folks trying to get out of homelessness. The tickets, historically, have largely gone unpaid, and they are a barrier for people trying to find housing. While the department didn't have a formal policy that told officers to rein in enforcement, officers used discretion.

"Just naturally over time, officers have reduced the frequency of enforcing those ordinances when people were in locations that we weren't receiving complaints on or weren't on their own problematic ... for compassionate reasons," he said. "You have folks that have nowhere to go. And, so, over time, when officers [are] issuing citations for people camping in the same places over and over and over eventually [they] just stop enforcing in those locations."

The new ordinances, he says, give officers a lot more latitude – namely, when it comes to the public health and safety aspect. Before, officers could ask people to get up and move – which was, according to APD, 98% effective under the old rules. Now they'll have to triage if the behavior is a public health or safety issue, then ask them to move.

"It's gray. It's not black and white," Newsom says. "When things are gray, and an officer can't definitively say that a person is immediately in danger, then it's going to be tough to enforce this."

Will this lead to tent cities?

It could. But arguing that now, Newsom says, is "just speculation."

"No one has any way of knowing if it's going to happen, and obviously there are strong opinions on both sides of this conversation. And, so, as is typical, when there are strong opinions on a specific topic, it's not uncommon for people to go to the extreme when they're talking about it," Newsom says. "[That] doesn’t [mean] that's right or wrong, and that's kind of where it is with whether or not tent cities are now going to form where there weren't tent cities already."

While the new rules allow people to set up tents, that doesn't mean people necessarily will, he says.