The Downtown Austin Alliance hosted a virtual panel discussion on May 24, 2021 on how the public order ordinances, which went into effect after the May 1 special election, will be implemented and upheld. Our panelists included City Manager Spencer Cronk, APD Interim Chief of Police, Joseph Chacon, and Court Administrator for the Downtown Community Court, Peter Valdez. Strategic communications consultant Leslie Rhode served as the moderator. The forum provided attendees with an opportunity to gain greater insight into the phased implementation of the camping ban ordinance, along with what we can expect specific to the sit-lie and solicitation ordinances. To view a video of the forum in its entirety, click here.
Dewitt Peart, Downtown Alliance President and CEO, opened the forum by giving an overview of the organization’s ongoing efforts to work with service providers, community leaders, and law enforcement with the goal of helping connect those experiencing homelessness with needed resources. As we recently revealed in our Roadmap to Recovery and Resilience, addressing unsheltered homelessness in Austin is one of the key priorities set forth to create a resilient and vibrant downtown.
To inform downtown stakeholders regarding how the implementation of these ordinances will impact their buildings, homes, land, and livelihoods, we have compiled a list of the forum’s questions and answers. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
What are the three public ordinances which Austin residents voted in favor of in the recent election?
The proposition reinstated three local ordinances which create a Class C misdemeanor criminal offense for:
- sitting or lying down on a public sidewalk or sleeping outdoors in and near the downtown area or the area around the University of Texas campus;
- soliciting money or other things of value at specific hours and locations in a public area of the City, as well as aggressively soliciting money or other things of value in the City; and
- camping in any public area not designated by the City for camping.
A violation of these laws can result in a fine of no more than $500 under Texas law. Since these are misdemeanor offenses, there is no jail term for violation of these laws.
These laws became effective on May 11, 2021 when City Council officially certified the election results. To see the City’s website on Proposition B, along with a list of frequently asked questions, click here.
These ordinances first went into effect in 2019. What has changed since then?
After the May 1 special election, the aggressive solicitation ordinance now pertains to the whole city, and not just certain areas, between the hours of 7:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. The sit-lie ordinance will now be enforced across a larger geographic area, including parts of East Austin, as well as around the University of Texas campus.
What is the phased approach the City will be following to enforce the camping ban?
To implement the ordinance in a compassionate and humane way, the Austin Police Department (APD), along with several other city departments, came up with a phased approach. The three stages include:
- education and outreach, unless intervention is necessary to address an immediate public health or safety need. This phase will last from May 11 until June 12, 2021.
- verbal and written warnings to encourage voluntary compliance. If an individual has already received a warning, citations may be issued. This phase will run from June 13 until July 10, 2021.
- citations will be issued when voluntary compliance does not occur. Prior to issuing a citation, officers will provide individuals with information about any lawful places to camp and other available shelters, housing, and other social services. When appropriate and reasonable, officers will also attempt to arrange for needed transportation and storage. This phase will begin on July 11, 2021.
How are officers providing education and outreach?
During the normally scheduled cleanups performed by other city departments, district representatives are accompanying those teams and engaging one-on-one with individuals experiencing homelessness to explain what the new ordinance is, the phased approach, and timelines. These representatives are providing a pamphlet to these individuals to answer common questions, direct them to available services, and provide contact information for these organizations. Officers can also request needed services immediately, if necessary. During these conversations, officers will let individuals know where it is illegal to camp within the city of Austin, as well as where shelters are located and what services are available.
What role will the Downtown Community Court play in these types of cases?
The Downtown Community Court was established in 1999 with a focus on therapeutic jurisprudence. Staffed by clinicians and clinical case managers, the Downtown Community Court works directly with individuals considered a public nuisance or problem offenders to connect them to social services, including mental health services, substance use services, and housing. Each clinician only carries a 16 person caseload so that they are able to work intensively with these individuals until these individuals have their housing needs met. The Downtown Community Court also has a triage case management system, which operates very much like an urgent care facility, so people can walk in voluntarily and receive referrals for basic needs services.
Historically, the Downtown Community Court has had jurisdiction primarily in the downtown area, the University of Texas’s West Campus, and a small part of east Austin. For this effort, the Assistant City Attorney assigned to the Downtown Community Court will be screening all of these cases to determine which court is best suited to handle them. Since the majority of the cases that come in will be associated with individuals experiencing homelessness, and because the Court has resources to help people stabilize and get connected to mental health and substance use services and housing, these cases will likely be funneled into the Downtown Community Court’s system of care.
What will phase three look like?
During the final phase, which starts after July 11, officers will be telling people that they have to move and issuing citations, when necessary. During this phase, APD will be working with other city department partners on relocation efforts, so that these individuals can pack up their belongings and moving to a sanctioned camping area. Citations are arrests are considered a last resort.
City departments are currently working on these sanctioned camping areas. A preliminary list was released of potential designated areas for camping, along with a list of what types of services and support would be needed to make sure that these facilities are managed appropriately. On June 1, the council and the community will receive an update with a revised list of sanctioned areas.
If the governor signs a statewide camping ban, how does that affect these locations and possible enforcement?
A statewide camping bill will not likely change the implementation of public order ordinances, but it may limit where sanctioned encampments are located and coordination with state agencies.
Are tents being allowed to stay at City Hall? Will that encampment be approached in the same manner and on the same timeline as other areas?
Tents were set up as a protest before the ordinance went into effect. When there are issues, individuals have moved to certain areas to comply with current ordinance and building rules. The same phased approach will be implemented at City Hall that will be rolling out across the city.
Can park land be used as a designated campsite?
City Manager Spencer Cronk mentioned that the City still wants the community to enjoy our parks and ensure those shared amenities are available, especially after dealing with a pandemic for many months. City officials also didn’t want to rule out parks entirely, because there are large areas or undeveloped parks that could be potential sites.
What happens when a person cited for these offenses fails to appear?
When the police engages with an individual, the system will show that they have an outstanding warrant. This will provide the officer with an opportunity to offer services and begin to help the individual stabilize and become connected to housing.
How are APD officers being trained on the implementation of these ordinances?
Officers were provided with the following bulletins corresponding to the different ordinances:
- Training Bulletin-Sit-Lie Ordinance 9-4-14
- Training Bulletin-Solicitation Ordinance 9-4-13
- Training Bulletin-Camping 9-4-11 doc
If a person doesn’t have a place to go, how does an officer respond?
For the education and outreach phases of implementation, individuals will not be required to move. The ordinance requires law enforcement to provide individuals with a list of places where they can go. Once there is a list of sanctioned encampments, officers can provide that information, along with a list of other community organizations which offer shelter and housing.
How can residents help provide solutions for the issue of homelessness?
The City established a specific email address (firstname.lastname@example.org) so residents can submit ideas and they can continue to explore all possibilities of how the issue might be addressed.
What should a community member do if he or she observes something that appears to be a violation?
If it’s not an emergency, the appropriate response is to call 311 to report it. These calls are being routed to district representatives to be handled, and to make sure that those individuals have been contacted, given a warning, and so forth. In the future, officers will be tracking the warnings. So when we enter phase two, written warnings will be issued. If an individual has already received a warning, if they continue to be in violation, they will receive a citation. If it is something that is clearly dangerous to human life, or property could be damaged or destroyed, then call 911 for an immediate response.
Will individuals experiencing homelessness who voluntarily walk in to the court for services be shielded from getting a ticket or citation while they wait for housing?
The Downtown Community Court can’t shield someone from the processes of law enforcement, but the Court will work to proactively connect individuals to sober housing or temporary housing until there is a long-term plan.
Will the ban on solicitation make it illegal to stand in busy intersections and ask for money?
Some prohibited behaviors fall directly under the solicitation ordinance, which includes soliciting at a bus stop, within 25 feet of an ATM, at a bank or at a check cashing business, or at a marked crosswalk between 7:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m., city-wide.
We have many systems in place to help and address the issue of homelessness. Are we going to do anything differently to address the mental health issues of many of those experiencing homelessness in downtown?
Many partners, including Integral Care, are conducting more outreach and engagement with a focus on the mental health issues that are so integrally linked to people experiencing homelessness.
Is the implementation of phase three fully placed on our police department, or is there some sort of special task force for this specific implementation that allows law enforcement to continue responding to the other community needs?
A number of officers are working full-time conducting the education and outreach, connecting the homeless community with services, and contacting as many individuals as possible through pamphlets and dialogue before the phase begins to start issuing citations.
Roadside solicitation is banned downtown under the transportation code. This restriction was no longer enforced after the ordinances were changed, but was not addressed by Prop B. Will this be enforced?
Officers will focus on voluntary compliance to stop the prohibited behavior.
How many sanctioned encampments are being targeted to be opened? Is it one in each council district?
The original resolution that was passed by City Council did include direction to have at least one option in each district. The location of encampments is a list which will continue to evolve over time, and city officials will update the community on June 1. Other organizations also have temporary and permanent housing facilities that can help address this critical issue.
What should we, as the community, do to help solve the issue of homelessness?
Ultimately, one of the big pieces of feedback from many of the national partners who looked at our current system and resources, was that we need to build capacity to have more outreach, caseworkers, and case management resources available for the whole community. To provide feedback to the City of Austin, email email@example.com.