Homelessness is a triple threat — to public safety, public health, and most notably, a humanitarian crisis. The city and the council have already taken some significant moves to offer care and help keep people off the street, but there is more work to do.
There is a debate raging about the so-called “homelessness ordinances”, or more commonly described as “sit/lie, solicitation, and camping” ordinances. These three ordinances combine to criminalize some of the more public aspects of this crisis, but clearly have not succeeded in solving it. Even with these ordinances currently in place, people still panhandle downtown and at intersections and camps keep returning under overpasses, despite regular and renewed efforts to remove them. So clearly the set of ordinances we have now is not accomplishing our goals as a community.
Furthermore, while we debate how to evolve these rules, photos of encampments in west-coast cities start popping up in the media, on Facebook, and in neighborhood newsletters. Otherwise respected local organizations start publishing op-eds in the newspaper decrying and misrepresenting yet-to-be-taken actions of the Council. And my inbox fills with emails from District 6 residents — half panicked that we will repeal these ordinances and the other half demanding that we do. Neither side accurately representing the contemplated choice before us.
Council is not repealing these ordinances
The council debate from June 6 made it clear that no repeal is on the table. Instead, we are looking to strengthen the rules, clarify for APD what needs to be enforced, and address some recent court rulings dealing with the First Amendment. By shifting the sit/lie and camping ordinances to focus instead on actions that threaten public health or safety, or obstructing the access to public property, it becomes clearer when sitting or lying on a bench is or is not an illegal act.
Furthermore, other Austin rules that prohibit camping in parks, trails, drainage, and water quality lands will still apply. Trespassing laws will still apply to private property. Setting up a tent on Congress Avenue will still be prohibited. Camping under highway overpasses will still be illegal.
The solicitation ordinance is a little more complicated because the courts have ruled that simply asking for money is protected speech under the First Amendment. However, aggressive confrontations are not protected speech. Instead of simply repealing the solicitation ordinance, we can actually broaden the ability for APD to intervene by changing it to an “Aggressive Confrontation” ordinance without crossing any constitutional lines. And there will be work coming to help address protected-speech solicitation too, but that will require other tactics that don’t infringe on anyone’s civil rights.
Enforcement of these ordinances is only part of the solution
Simply having the existing ordinances in place, or even the amended versions, will not magically solve this problem! Enforcement activities have already started increasing, with the Council approving new agreements with TxDOT in April for issues under overpasses. Prior to 2019, the City of Austin was prohibited from taking enforcement actions on TxDOT property. Under our new agreements, more frequent clean-ups are occurring, and they are also connecting folks with existing resources to help them get off the streets. Our office has a regular conference call with our D6 APD District Representatives to follow up on that work (and other public safety issues in the district).
The City is also taking steps to improve those resources, creating a new cross-department Homeless Strategy Officer position, allocating new monies in the 2019 budget, partnering with the Tourism industry for a new tax on hotel rooms to help with homelessness downtown, and approving new shelter facilities (both public and with private partners). Additional work is coming to both help get people out of homelessness and to help prevent people from losing their homes. Affordable housing, job training, and other social services will help keep the numbers from continuing to increase. And the land development code rewrite Council hopes to complete this year can help address the larger market forces that can make housing inaccessible.
About Inaccessible Housing…
One of the failure points in our system is that once someone gets on the wrong side of criminal justice (even just an arrest warrant with no conviction), it can make housing inaccessible. Housing providers, whether temporary or permanent supportive housing, frequently have background-check prohibitions making those options unavailable. This means we need to be very careful about focusing our law enforcement activities to actual criminal acts and not just about the presence of someone experiencing homelessness. Unnecessary criminalization can send them down a path that both excludes them from the very resources they need to get off the streets and exacerbates the crisis for everyone.
So What’s Next?
The ordinance changes Council will debate on June 20 will help clarify and focus enforcement efforts to the behaviors we want to prohibit, and not merely the presence of someone experiencing homelessness. But no one thinks this is all that needs to be done. In fact, the City has already shown that if we focus our resources, we can actually improve the situation. The number of youth and families on the street has decreased in the last few years, as a direct result of targeted investments for those populations. But to really see an impact on overall numbers, resources focused on single adults must be increased accordingly.
Work continues to better address the entire spectrum of homelessness, from helping to prevent people from losing their homes to getting people off the streets if they do. Land code rewrite, new hotel taxes, new public and private shelter facilities, improved and more integrated social services, and just the basic construction of more housing at all income levels will help us address this systemic problem. There is no magic solution, and certainly no quick one. But the City has never been more resolved to do the big work. This big work can result in big change if our community sticks with us.
Council Member Jimmy Flannigan