Austin's ordinances that 'criminalize' the homeless officially changed Monday

After a controversial decision by the Austin City Council last month, camping, sitting and lying down is now only a violation if someone is blocking a pathway or putting themselves or others in some sort of danger.

"Given the changes to the ordnance, if it doesn't meet a health and safety risk or they're not completely blocking the ability for people to pass then what you see behind me is legal today," said Assistant Austin Police Chief Justin Newsom Monday afternoon, referring to a homeless camp underneath I-35.  

Asking for money is protected under First Amendment rights but any sort of aggressive behavior is still against the law.

"Sixth Street used to be a lot of fun but I mean, I'm getting asked for money everywhere I go," said Jeff Silverman, who is visiting Austin from Fort Worth.

He says at times, he and those he's with have felt fear downtown.

"I parked my car over here yesterday and there was actually an altercation between two homeless guys and they were chasing each other," said Silverman. “So we jumped in the cars and locked the door and we've never had to do that before.”

Julie Nowlin has owned Jeweled Salon near the UT campus for the past year and half. Nowlin says she had to install cameras because of the criminal activity in the area. At one point, she says a man police described as homeless walked inside her shop and stole her cell phone.

"That guy has come back. He's come back more than once. The guy that took my cell phone.” Nowlin said. “So I wouldn't feel safe if people like that were allowed to stay in front. My girls work here late at night by themselves often.”

As for the changes to how police do their jobs, Nowlin expressed worry.

"When we call them, it's because we're already threatened,” Nowlin said. “But now it seems they won't be able to handle it.”

Newsom says if a business owner is having an issue with someone camping outside, police will still respond.

"We'll still respond, we'll still see if it falls within the boundaries of these new ordinances," he said.

However, he says there are a lot of unknowns and there will be some growing pains.

"For instance if an officer does take enforcement action based on the health and safety component then he or she are going to have to articulate in an offense report what it was they saw that led them to believe it met that standard,” Newsom said. “And then it's going to have to go to court. And then they're going to have to testify to that extent. And then it will be up to a judge to decide if he or she agrees that standard was met.”

One example of a public place where people still can't camp, at least for now, is Austin City Hall. The city says they are reviewing that in light of these ordinance changes.

Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk is working on a list of places in Austin where people can and can't camp. The city is also trying to figure out how to enforce that in a "non-criminal" way.