As the city adjusts to new rules for panhandling, camping or sitting or lying down in public, the Downtown Austin Alliance hosted a forum Tuesday to discuss the road ahead for dealing with homelessness and plans to expand emergency shelter access across the city.
In the three weeks since the revised ordinances went into effect, there has been an explosion of conversation, consternation, praise and vitriol – including threats of state action by Gov. Greg Abbott and an impassioned plea from Austin Mayor Steve Adler in the Statesman earlier this week.
That spectrum of concern was front and center at the forum, which began with a call for civility among the roughly 400 attendees at Central Presbyterian Church.
Speaking on a panel moderated by LBJ School of Public Policy Dean Angela Evans, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley said the issues surrounding homelessness aren’t new and that the packed house was evidence the city as a whole is willing to act on the issue.
"Regardless of your position on the issue, we’ve got 400 people in the room today. So there is an energy behind this – there is an importance behind this," he said. "And I think if we find ourselves a year from now not having made any progress from this point, then shame on all of us.”
He reminded the audience it's still early going, but that the ordinances have changed how police interact with homeless Austinites.
Under the old ordinances, police officers could cite people for resting or camping in public, or if they were aggressively panhandling. Now, APD can ticket a person resting or camping in public only if they're completely obstructing a sidewalk – or if an officer determines the behavior is a threat to public health or safety. That triage has been the biggest change for enforcement, Manley said.
"The big change for us is our ability to interact in instances that do not meet that threshold of 'hazardous' or 'dangerous,'" he said. "That's probably been the biggest change, and at the end of the day, we recognize that we are dealing with human beings here."
Still, Manley said, there are intangible and tangible effects of the ordinances, so far.
More people are camping in more visible areas with "more elaborate setups," he said, but APD hasn't collected enough data to definitively say how they're impacting public health and safety, or whether crime associated with homelessness has increased because of City Council's vote.
"We're paying attention to all of these things, for us, that indicate public safety issues could be arising," Manley said, "or just what these changes have done to overall community safety."
Panelist Bill Brice of the Downtown Austin Alliance said the ordinances shouldn't be the only solution to homelessness, calling for public and private investment in shelter space across the city. Brice also alluded to the National Alliance to End Homelessness' 2018 survey of the city's most visible shelter, the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH), which suggested the city invest more in shelters.
The national alliance, he said, is "loathe to suggest" communities open up more shelters.
"When they looked at our numbers, when they see the significant increase we've had in unsheltered homeless in the last five years, they say, 'You need more shelter,'" Brice said. "So more shelter now is absolutely needed, but it can't be the dead-end that the ARCH has been for a long time. You have got to be able to move people through it, not to it."
The city is helping expand emergency shelter options outside the downtown area. Council OK'd the purchase of land in South Austin for a new emergency shelter and voted to give financial support to the Salvation Army's new Rathgeber Center in East Austin.
On top of that, the Austin City Council directed City Manager Spencer Cronk to search for more temporary shelter space in all 10 council districts. Council will discuss those findings at its Aug. 8 meeting.
After the forum, Council Member Kathie Tovo said she plans to put forth an item at that meeting to establish a public nonprofit entity working on behalf of city government to bring together private and public money for homelessness services and housing.
"We have not yet had a citywide, coordinated effort to raise money for housing and services for individuals experiencing homelessness," she said. "One tool for that is a local government corporation."
As for the ordinances, interim Homelessness Strategy Officer Veronica Briseño suggested the city's rules aren't set in stone.
"As we're trying to find the right answers," she said, "this is the initial revised ordinances that we're working with, but I think that there's always an opportunity to amend ordinances moving forward."