Austin City Council members heard testimony on revisions to its homelessness rules ahead of an expected vote Friday that could reinstate restrictions on camping and resting in public.
The majority of those who testified Wednesday said they supported efforts to walk back previous restrictions on behavior related to homelessness. Those earlier restrictions led to unpaid tickets, which, in turn, resulted in arrest warrants, creating barriers for people trying to transition out of homelessness.
City Council could pass a plan to bring back restrictions on certain streets. Much of the public testimony suggested the city stick with ordinances passed on June 20, however. That decision sparked a larger, divisive discussion on public safety and public health issues associated with homelessness – with opponents arguing the relaxed rules have increased crime.
Several opponents, like Travis County GOP Chair Matt Mackowiak, railed against the new rules, which he called an "absolute disaster."
Downtown businesses and the Downtown Austin Alliance have also argued the revisions have made the area more unsafe.
George Scariano, co-owner of the Royal Blue Grocery chain, said the store's location at Sixth Street and Congress Avenue has seen an uptick in theft since July 1. He added that he respects the city's move to revise the ordinances, but suggested more police presence was needed downtown.
"Decriminalizing homelessness and forthcoming housing solutions are quite admirable," he said. "But right now, daily, we are dealing with lawlessness."
Chris Paige, a District 1 resident, said he respects the "humanity" of the June 20 ordinances, but said the possibility of Council choosing specific areas to prohibit camping and city "will just breed resentment."
"That's a recipe for disaster. I think it'll just breed tension between neighborhoods," Paige said. "It'll increase the sense of disparity in rights between citizens."
On Friday, Council will consider prohibiting camping on certain streets – including streets in the downtown area and in West Campus. Some Council members have pushed the latest proposal as a "phased" enforcement strategy for the ordinances – one that would require the city to provide more housing opportunities before rolling out more restrictions.
Austin Justice Coalition's Chas Moore said the entire discussion on homelessness in Austin has divided the city and that the conversation has sidestepped the issue of race. He also argued that the new ordinances haven't created more homeless Austinites; it's just made them more visible. And, he said, people experiencing homelessness here are disproportionately black.
"Here we are talking about actual human people and we want to hide them? We want to hide them from our kids?" he said. "We want to hide the issues from our neighbors on the West Side or Southwest Austin? And when has ever hiding anything solved anything in this country?"
Hours before the testimony, three council members – Kathie Tovo, Ann Kitchen and Alison Alter – presented a new resolution that would direct the city manager to establish a temporary shelter at 12th and Red River. The city-owned land would house people camped outside the Austin Resource Center Homeless and those camped under Ben White from Lamar to Manchaca.
Council Member Jimmy Flannigan bristled at the plan and said it was crafted on short notice. He suggested Council rely on the city's new homelessness czar to find solutions.
"We didn’t bring a homeless strategy officer from Austin. We brought her from a community where it was working – where the solutions were being implemented, where progress was being made," he said. "A resolution posted to the message board 45 minutes ago is insufficient for me, is insufficient for the public, I think."
If approved, the shelter space could open as soon as Oct. 15 and operate for no longer than a year.
Tovo defended the resolution before public testimony, saying it would address immediate concerns and would function in tandem with whatever Council decides Friday.
"The phased approach works because of the provisions that are in the resolution," she said. "And so, I think that's very important to keep in mind. If we are identifying areas that are going to be prohibited to camping ... there needs to be a strategy for resolving the encampments in those areas."