Austin City Council meeting held to clarify camp, sit, lie changes

It was a standing-room only turnout for the Austin City Council's special-called meeting on clarifying Austin's homeless ordinance changes.  

"I've seen too many mothers literally crying and asking the Mayor and asking the City Council to do something about the camping," said Jennifer Fleck with the group Take Back Austin, a group that formed after the ordinances were changed.

Last week there were two different sets of ideas on how to clarify the changes: one plan from Council Members Kathie Tovo and Ann Kitchen and a different one from Mayor Adler and Council Member Greg Casar.

Now the four are working together on a plan they describe as being "phased-in" — meaning there are certain restrictions the City can enforce now. They call that Category 1, which covers, for example, any camping, sitting or lying that's being done in a way that's a public health or safety threat, and in parks, flood-buy-out areas and libraries too.

"In the most risky immediate imminent danger places: enforcement immediately," Kitchen said. "Then the next tier of places that are unsafe but are not as unsafe so to speak, then we're going to — before we put up signs, before we say you can't be here then we're going to go in in a very concentrated way and connect people that are living there to services."

According to the plan, in Category 2, those restrictions will go into effect now, but they'll only be enforced after services and housing are offered to folks and signage is put into place, including bans on camping around a shelter.

Category 3 includes restrictions like a camping ban on all sidewalks. The idea is for Category 3 to not be enforced until the City "achieves the community's goal for ending homelessness," meaning a housing waitlist of fewer than 60 days.

"I'm not for a phased-in approach, I don't understand why we can't rescind the entire ordinance change that was put into effect in June," Fleck said.

Tovo is bringing forth an Encampment Response Strategy that would address the situation seen daily outside the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless.  

"We don't want to allow camping outside the ARCH, however there are possibly 100 individuals outside the ARCH right now, and we don't want to revert back to a system where they're getting citations immediately after we pass this ordinance, so instead of that approach we would really focus on the resources including shelter and other assistance to connect those individuals to housing," Tovo said.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan experienced frustration with the whole process, saying it's like putting lipstick on a pig.

"A resolution that was posted to the message board 45 minutes ago was insufficient to me, insufficient for the public I think," Flannigan said.

Flannigan says Council is not going to solve this by inventing policy on the dais. He says the new homeless strategy officer should be working on the issue.

"Nobody wants to see the camping, I don't want to see the camping, my constituents don't want to see the camping," Flannigan said.

As part of Tovo's resolution she's hoping the City will identify the vacant Health South building on 12th Street and Red River as a spot for temporary, emergency shelter.