Council Members Offer Revised Plan That Phases In Restrictions On Camping Or Resting In Public

Sep 17, 2019

City leaders have a new proposal to regulate behavior related to homelessness ahead of a possible City Council vote that could happen as soon as Wednesday.

The proposal comes after roughly a week of infighting among council members. Kathie Tovo and Ann Kitchen put out one plan last Tuesday, then Greg Casar and Mayor Steve Adler offered their own takes on how to regulate camping or sitting or lying down in public.

Council members Alison Alter and Leslie Pool supported the Kitchen-Tovo plan, while Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza and Natasha Harper-Madison and Pio Renteria sided with Casar and the mayor. Paige Ellis and Jimmy Flannigan didn't expressly support any of the proposals, but suggested more clarity regarding enforcement and said the city should lean on its newly hired homelessness strategy officer to determine how to restrict where people can camp, sit or lie down.

Today's plan – put forth by Adler, Casar, Kitchen and Tovo – offers a framework for council to hash out that (still) includes bans on camping or resting on private property or city land, or in a manner that threatens public health or safety.

Casar said the new plan diverges on certain issues like restrictions on camping and resting on sidewalks and along roadways, but that the problem areas from the previous plans have been "significantly reduced."

"I think what the Council is coming around and agreeing on is that there are and should be clear rules about where you can and cannot camp, and that we're trying to make those rules really clear," he said.

The plan floats a “phased-in” approach that could immediately ban camping or resting in certain areas. Those areas could include some high-traffic streets downtown and in West Campus, and areas near creeks or at risk of wildfire. Obstruction of sidewalks and doorways would also be included, but Council members haven't yet agreed on specifics.

Another round of prohibitions could follow – but only after the city figures out places for people to live. Those prohibitions could include more streets and areas around shelters.

Angelica Cogliano, a criminal defense attorney who sued the city over its camping ordinance last year, argued the camping ban was unconstitutional because of a lack of shelter space.  She says she hopes the city doesn't enforce restrictions before there is enough shelter space.

"If they try and enforce that before people have a place to go – thereby actually prohibiting them from trying to access the limited services that are currently available – I think that's an issue in its own right," she said. "So, I guess we'll have to see how that plays out and see if they really do wait."

Still, Cogliano says she's "cautiously optimistic" about the proposal. Casar says the approach will ultimately be more effective in reducing homelessness, as the restrictions would work better if the city has enough shelter space or housing for Austinites experiencing homelessness.

"Right now, the waitlist is just so long that if we just try to enforce no camping in one area, in one neighborhood, they're just going to wind up in another neighborhood," he said, "and it's going to make it harder to solve the problem."

The Austin City Council is set to take up the ordinance revision Wednesday starting at 1 p.m.

Read the full plan below.