AUSTIN, Texas (FOX 7 Austin) - Austin criminal justice reform advocate Chris Harris has long been fighting for the City of Austin to do away with a number of ordinances that affect people experiencing homelessness.
Item 45 on next week's council agenda brought forward by Council Member Greg Casar, Harris says is a step in the right direction.
"When you get criminal history, when you get tickets and arrests and warrants, these become impediments and behaviors to you getting out of homelessness," Harris said. "It makes it that much harder to get a job, it makes it that much harder to get housing."
If passed, the ordinance will make changes to the camping section of the city's code as well as what's called "sit-lie."
"We don't want to say that just because you're too poor or you don't have shelter, you can't sit or lie down or sleep in our community," Harris said.
The changes will make it an offense only if someone is doing those things in a manner that puts themselves or others in danger or intentionally impedes the use of public property.
As for panhandling or "solicitation"-- the city has extensive rules on that now. For example you can't solicit near an ATM or bank or anywhere downtown between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.
This ordinance would repeal those rules. Documents from Casar's office say "aggressive" panhandling or any sort of aggressive behavior or harassment will still be illegal under different laws. These changes protect someone's free speech for simply asking for money.
"We don't see these ordinances enforced against church groups asking for money, against school groups asking for money," Harris said.
The panhandling issue has been a challenge in the West Campus area of the University of Texas at Austin. Joell McNew with the group SafeHorns says "The dearth of lighting, surveillance, and patrol services in West Campus already poses a risk to the safety of the community and that risk would only be heightened by a repeal of the ordinance."
"Is it your Constitutional right to go up to ask people for something?" Austin Police Association president Ken Casaday said. "I believe it is, but not aggressively and not in an aggressive manner."
Casaday says without the rules, people will look at officers and tell them to "go fly a kite" when asked to move.
"It's an important tool for our officers that work downtown to enforce camping and the sit and lie," Casaday said. "No one's trying to pick on the homeless but some of the serious issues that we have down there are people defecating and urinating in front of people's businesses."
"Well I think they're working under the false impression that more police enforcement of any sort of ordinances is somehow going to alleviate the impacts of people that live, work and vacation around homeless shelters and services are going to feel -- but that's just not the case," Harris said.
Dewitt Peart, President and CEO of the Downtown Austin Alliance sent this statement:
“The Downtown Austin Alliance opposes the proposed changes to the Aggressive Panhandling, Camping and Sit/Lie ordinances because they will negatively impact the city and downtown Austin in particular.
Changing the ordinances to allow individuals to camp outside, aggressively panhandle and lie on public sidewalks doesn’t solve Austin’s worsening issue of homelessness and, in fact, creates a multitude of serious health concerns for those who are living unsheltered and for the community as a whole.
Austin needs to ensure people experiencing homelessness can be safe during the day and at night, so they no longer need to live on the streets. This can be accomplished through immediate increases in shelter, homeless navigation services and housing.
The Downtown Austin Alliance implores Austin City Council to put shelter and housing solutions in place and slow down to allow for community input on this very serious matter that will affect our entire community.”
Council is set to discuss the matter on June 6th.