Austin Ponders Repealing Ordinances That Target Homeless

Should Austin repeal ordinances primarily targeting people experiencing homelessness? That was a question asked on the agenda of Monday night’s Public Safety Commission meeting.

In 2017 the Austin City Auditor released a report on the effects of three city ordinances: panhandling, camping and “sit/lie” restrictions, which ban sitting or lying in certain parts of downtown Austin. The report pointed out that issuing citations for those is not an effective way of connecting the homeless with the services they need. Also, other cities like Houston have faced lawsuits for having similar ordinances.

Bill Brice with the Downtown Austin Alliance said they’ve received complaints from visitors to the city.

“August 22 of last year: ‘Walking trips around the hotel, all the same.  So many people asking for money, food, sex, beer. Looked like another city that just let itself go. I don’t believe my husband or I will ever go back,” said Brice.

Assistant Chief of Austin Police Department, Justin Newsom advised against a repeal.

“If we didn’t have an ordinance against camping, then the front steps out here at City Hall and this space out front could be completely filled with tents and people living there. And the only recourse would be arresting them for criminal trespass which is a Class B misdemeanor. City ordinance violations do not appear on criminal history checks,” said Newsom.

Edward McHorse is on the Ending Community Homelessness board (ECHO). He agreed with Newsom’s take on the unintended consequences of repealing those ordinances. It might end up hurting someone’s chances of getting into housing.

“They screen by criminal history. We’re trying to get them to do less of that but the reality is that’s one of the things they look at. That’s what I mean by unintended consequences is you could have people who are getting citations right now that don’t interfere with their ability to get housing. They’d start getting citations that do. And that would make our work more difficult,” said McHorse.

ECHO has asked the city not to rush into repealing the ordinances to make sure to avoid the unintended consequences. The commission voted to direct the City Manager to review the ordinances and seek more input on them.

Jason Williams and Miya Defreeze are both homeless.  When asked what they think about the repealing the sit/lie restrictions, they both thought that it was a good idea.

“Because it’s not like you’re bothering anybody or doing anything. You’re just in your own little world,” said Williams.

“I’m actually about to get my housing and everything, and sometimes I get tired and I fall asleep on the bench,” said Defreeze.

The Salvation Army sent a letter to the commission saying: “The ‘tent city’ that appears to be developing around the perimeter of the ARCH truly presents an unacceptable level of risk for all — residents, staff, and local business alike. For this reason, we respectfully request your consideration in tabling any repeal of the sit/lie ordinances for further investigation and review.”