On July 23, we hosted a community forum on the recent changes to the camping and sit/lie ordinances. Nearly 400 hundred community members attended the event which featured a panel discussion on the impact of the changes, enforcement of the new laws, and what’s ahead.
Chief Brian Manley, Austin Police Department
Veronica Briseño, City of Austin Interim Homeless Strategy Officer
Bill Brice, Vice President, Investor Relations, Downtown Austin Alliance
Moderator: Dean Angela Evans, LBJ School of Public Affairs
At the event, attendees had the opportunity to submit questions for the panelists on notecards. We’ve used those questions and others we’ve heard frequently from the downtown community to compile the Q&A below. We hope that it will help to clear up confusion and address some of the concerns we’ve been hearing since the ordinance changes went into effect.
You can listen to the panel discussion in its entirety here.
Learn more about our initiatives to improve the lives of people experiencing homelessness here. To submit comments directly to the Mayor and City Council click here.
- Where can I find the specifics of the ordinance changes?
The ordinances as amended on June 20th are available on the City of Austin website here. The City Council Resolution No. 20190620-184 directing the city manager to assess opportunities and make recommendations for immediate and short-term actions to engage and assist individuals experiencing homelessness can be found here. Additional information including the City of Austin’s homelessness strategy and a Q & A about the revised ordinances can be found at austintexas.gov/homelessness.
- Is there data on the effects of the ordinances?
It’s only been a few weeks since the changes went into effect on July 1, which is not enough time to determine if instances of camping, sitting and lying have increased. However, the Downtown Austin Alliance is collecting data through our Downtown Ambassador and overtime APD programs that will be assessed to determine the impact of the ordinance changes.
During the panel discussion, Chief Brian Manley emphasized the importance of data in the work of the Austin Police Department. APD is tracking every time officers are dispatched to a call that potentially involves these ordinances, whether or not the officers are able to take action. And if they’re not, whether they would have been able to take action prior to these ordinances being changed so they can gauge the impact of the changes. He reiterated the importance of reporting crimes even if they are perceived as minor. If it’s not reported, they can’t track it!
As a reminder, call 911 if a crime is in progress and 311 if it is after the incident has occurred.
- Why not provide people experiencing homelessness with places to sleep before changing the ordinances?
The Downtown Austin Alliance and other stakeholders asked City Council to wait until the city manager came back in August with urgent actions to address homelessness before considering changes to the ordinances. However, City Council moved forward with the ordinance changes in advance of a plan.
- What do I do if I’m concerned about camping in front of my business or property?
Be observant and report behavior that you think is unsafe, blocking the right-of-way, or causing a public health hazard to any individual, including those individuals experiencing homelessness. We expect that the city manager will report back to City Council in August 2019 to propose reasonable time and place opportunities and limitations on camping, sitting and lying (among other things) as directed in Resolution No. 20190620-184.
- What is being done to keep the ordinance changes from impacting tourism?
The Austin Police Department is enforcing behavior in accordance with how the ordinances are now structured. The ordinance changes did not impact the police department’s authority to engage with people whose conduct is threatening, hazardous or dangerous to someone else or whose conduct is impeding the public right-of-way.
However, police are no longer able to intervene in instances that do not meet that threshold of hazardous or dangerous, including quality of life issues such as individuals camping/sitting/lying in front of a business or sleeping in a public space.
We recognize that an environment that gives the perception or reality of being unsafe could be detrimental to our $8 billion per year tourism industry that provides vital tax revenue to support schools, parks and emergency services throughout the entire city.
- Is there any evidence suggesting that other cities are actively encouraging their homeless communities to move to Austin?
Data shows that approximately 70% of people experiencing homelessness in Austin are from the Central Texas region. While we hear this rumor frequently, there is no evidence to substantiate this claim.
- Is camping permitted in Austin city parks?
Current parks rules prohibit camping overnight, and that will continue unless City Council changes those rules. It is possible that as part of the recommendations brought to forth in August 2019 in response to in Resolution No. 20190620-184, City Council could decide to designate certain park areas as approved for camping.
- How can we get the current city ordinance changed and what is the timeline?
Resolution No. 20190620-184 passed on June 20th directs the City Manager to assess opportunities and make recommendations for immediate and short-term actions to engage and assist individuals experiencing homelessness – including reasonable time and place opportunities and limitations on camping, sitting and lying. The Downtown Austin Alliance is working with city management on these recommendations.
- Why is ARCH located downtown?
The Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team (R/UDAT) 1991 report (page 44) called for a “comprehensive mental health and alcohol/drug rehabilitation center with a related transitional housing program… in close proximity to the Salvation Army.”
- Where should new shelters be located? How can the city better address the fears and safety concerns of neighbors living near potential shelter locations?
Resolution No. 20190620-184, directs the City Manager “to provide possible options for at least ten locations, one in each council district… that would allow for a temporary or permanent shelter, and/or camping… in conjunction with the delivery of and receipt of wrap-around services.”
People living in places not meant for habitation (parks, streets, underpasses) present a number of health and safety concerns to the community especially the individuals experiencing homelessness. Providing safe shelter and access to services across the city creates an environment that is safer for the whole community including those experiencing homelessness.
It is unreasonable to complain about people living under highways and in other uninhabitable places and to be against creating places where people experiencing homelessness can be safe. City Council understands that additional shelters must be operated correctly, including what Council Member Kitchen calls “good neighbor restrictions” to regulate who is allowed in the shelter and to keep people from loitering outside.
- What is the relationship between rising housing costs and homelessness?
Data from cities across the country illustrates that there is a direct correlation between the rising cost of housing and homelessness.
Austin, like similar cities such as Seattle, Portland, and Los Angeles are experiencing rapid population growth, rising housing costs and gentrification – all factors which contribute to less housing affordability.
- Who is responsible for cleaning sidewalks when the Downtown Ambassadors are not available?
The Downtown Austin Alliance provides services to supplement basic city services. The City provides periodic pressure washing on 6th Street and on Congress Avenue and nightly litter removal. Our downtown ambassadors provide daily cleaning and hospitality services from 6 a.m. to midnight and pressure washing on a rotating basis seven nights a week.
- Why are members of the panel validating a campaign of hatred against the most vulnerable members of our community?
The panelists explicitly stated that negative acts or actions targeting people who are homeless are unacceptable.
The panelists recognize that people experiencing homelessness are frequently victims of crime, often preyed upon by criminals and are subject to very unsafe health conditions. The panelists spoke to the concern of not wanting to become a community where people walk by someone lying on the sidewalk without regard for that person’s health or safety. All panelists called for increased shelter where those experiencing homelessness can be safe and access services to help end their condition of homelessness.
Additionally, the Downtown Austin Alliance has contributed significant time and resources over the past 15 years to improve the lives of people experiencing homelessness. This includes advocacy efforts and significant funding to housing initiatives such as Community First! Village and Terrace at Oak Springs. Learn more here.
- What do homeless advocates and experts say about the efficacy of criminalizing homelessness?
The ordinances prior to and post revision were never intended to criminalize homelessness, but instead to focus on behavior.
Additionally, it has been recognized that APD officers consistently work to help the homeless community, which Chief Manley noted in his comments at the forum. If an officer is dispatched to help an individual who is in need of medical or mental assistance, they will be assisted just as they were prior to the ordinance changes.