Mayor Adler Suggests Council Doesn't Need To Revise Its New Homelessness Rules

Sep 26, 2019

Mayor Steve Adler says the Austin City Council doesn't necessarily need to revise rules passed in June that effectively legalized camping, siting and lying down in public.

The rules, which went into effect July 1, allow camping and resting in public in areas outside private and public parkland, as long as a person isn't completely blocking a sidewalk or isn't a public health or safety hazard.

Last week, City Council was set to add some restrictions on those rules, but opted to hold off, as many members didn't feel comfortable with the timeline and wanted to wait until the city's new homeless strategy officer could weigh in.

Adler said in a post to the city's message board Thursday that the meeting showed there was "a very strong consensus for some level of ordinance clarification and corrective action following from existing laws, and would indicate that the Manager, without any further action by council could" clear up confusion on the part of the public and police.

In an interview with KUT, Homeless Strategy Officer Lori Pampilo Harris said she doesn't plan on telling Council or Austin police how to proceed, but that she sees her office focusing its efforts on housing-related proposals.

"I believe the Homeless Strategy Office is not here to direct City Council on how to create laws," she said. "The Homeless Strategy Office is not here to tell how APD should enforce any laws."

The mayor's memo puts a lot of onus on City Manager Spencer Cronk and the Austin Police Department – which could seemingly forestall a planned Council vote on revisions to city rules on Oct. 17.

Broadly, Adler suggested the city manager and APD identify how to better enforce laws; institute a 4-foot clearance area on sidewalks and a 6-foot clearance area around entrances; and post signs along areas where it's not safe to camp or rest, like roadway medians or areas with a buildup of trash.

Adler's memo suggested APD and the city manager encourage residents to call 911 if they see behavior that's aggressive or lewd. Complaints and attacks against Adler and the City Council on social media have persisted since the rules went into effect this summer. That criticism has largely suggested the new rules attracted more homeless people to Austin and emboldened people to act more aggressively.

The mayor suggested rolling out training bulletins for police officers that could clear up confusion. He suggests a 4-foot clearance area be applied to sidewalks and a 6-foot clearance area on entrances to buildings.

"While some of us might go further, it’s clear that there’s consensus for going at least this far," Adler said.

Council members couldn't reach agreement on how to regulate camping on sidewalks last week. Certain blocs wanted a 4-foot clearance. Others wanted to ban camping and resting on streets in downtown and West Campus – similar to the previous prohibitions.

As for unsafe camping, Adler called on the manager to put signs in areas deemed unsafe and "accelerate and focus additional sanitation efforts as appropriate."

He also called on the city to clean up the area around the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, a longtime camping and resting area for homeless Austinites that's come under scrutiny since the new ordinances went into effect. 

"We need to foster greater hopefulness in the community by demonstrating that we know how to help people move off our streets," Adler wrote. "Doing so around the ARCH would provide very visible proof."

The mayor's memo came shortly before the Downtown Austin Alliance signed a friend of the court brief in a case out of Boise, Idaho, related to homelessness. Last year, the U.S. Ninth Circuit struck down a camping ban there, saying it violated the Eighth Amendment's protection on cruel and unusual punishment. Boise appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Several cities and states, including Texas, have signed similar briefs urging the court to take up the case.

Council members used the Boise ruling as one justification for revising its old rules – which more often than not led to unpaid tickets and arrest warrants for homeless defendants.