A Ban On Public Camping Would Return Under A Proposal Up This Week At Austin City Council.

Oct 15, 2019

The Austin City Council discussed reinstating bans on camping and resting in public Tuesday ahead of a vote at its Thursday meeting. The deliberation comes as the city faces the threat of state intervention from Gov. Greg Abbott and withering criticism on social media from opponents of rules it adopted this summer, rolling back restrictions on camping, sitting and lying down in public. 

City Council members talked about a proposal from Council members Ann Kitchen, Kathie Tovo, Alison Alter and Leslie Pool that could reinstate camping restrictions on specific streets. 

Early on in the discussion, Mayor Steve Adler committed to passing an ordinance, along with two resolutions that would instruct the city manager to research how to make camping safer by (possibly) limiting certain structures and study possibilities for short-term shelter space.

"What the community really wants from us now is to provide clarification to the ordinance," he said. 

But there wasn't consensus on how the city could reinstate bans on camping in public.

The revised ordinance would ban camping on specific high-traffic streets, but also bans camping on sidewalks outright and near city shelters. It would also ban sitting or lying down on streets around UT Austin.

Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, along with Council members Jimmy Flannigan and Greg Casar, suggested the proposed ordinances didn't necessarily need to be changed.

Garza said she couldn't support the proposed ordinance and an accompanying resolution because, the council members suggested, they could re-criminalize homelessness in some instances.

"I think there was a clear message in September that we weren't supporting something more restrictive, and I hope there is some other option, if there is going to be the will to pass something," she said. "I think the majority have been saying, 'We did the right thing, we think the direction's there – maybe there's need for clarity.' But I think what's before us right now goes a little too far."

As for whether the city could include specific streets in a camping ban, Assistant City Attorney Chris Coppola suggested that specificity was preferred, if the city was going to reinstate penalties.

"That's what our advice to the Council is when they're creating a crime," Coppola said. "People need to know exactly what is prohibited behavior and if it's a place, then they need to know exactly where that behavior is prohibited to the greatest extent possible."

Adler suggested a possible substitution or amendments could bridge that rift – one of which included combining the camping ordinance with the sidewalk obstruction ordinance (what was once called the sit-lie ordinance).

The mayor said he hoped an alternative to the ordinance, or amendments to it, would be posted by Wednesday.

But Council member Ann Kitchen said she didn't want to start over from scratch, and that she hoped Council members would be prepared to pass the ordinance on Thursday, instead of parsing through amendments.

"I really just don't think it's fair to say at this stage of the game that it's OK to just substitute something else that we haven't really seen," she said. "I expect we'll see it tomorrow – I hope so – but we haven't seen it."

Ahead of that discussion, Council members were briefed on homelessness writ large, in light of the threat of Gov. Abbott to "unleash" state agencies to mitigate homelessness in Austin. Much of the discussion rebuffed one of the governor's persistent talking points as it relates to homelessness in the capital city: that Austin's been inundated with human feces and used needles, and that the city's rules have brought with them the threat of communicable diseases like typhus.

Stephanie Hayden, director of Austin Public Health, said that wasn't the case – that, yes, there has been public defecation in Austin near encampments, but that there isn't an imminent health risk.

"We do not have a public health crisis," Hayden said, noting that they health department is "not really seeing more of it than we did before" the City Council's June vote to rollback the ordinances.

Public Works Director Richard Mendoza echoed that sentiment, saying crews cleaning up encampments around city underpasses haven't seen the flow of feces and needles that the governor and other opponents of the city ordinances have crowed about on social media.

Finally, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley, who Abbott cited in his Oct. 10 letter to Mayor Steve Adler, said there hasn't been an increase in violent crime and property crime linked to homeless Austinites. However, that's not to say crime isn't up over last year. Manley said there has been an increase in property crime compared to this time last year.