AUSTIN, Texas (FOX 7 Austin) - The Austin community learned a bit more about the effects of changes to city ordinances regarding the homeless community. The Downtown Austin Alliance held a public forum on the issue to address some of the public's concerns.
About 400 people packed into the Central Presbyterian Church to learn more about the city's changes to sitting, lying and camping ordinances. “You go down Congress, you get harassed every block for money or you get harassed for something. It's just getting overwhelming,” said Jarod Carter, a parking attendant at the Vaughn Building downtown.
Austin Police Chief Brian Manley, one of the panelists who addressed concerns, said his office is monitoring the number of complaints about the homeless population, but there have already been instances where officers could not do anything about a report when they would’ve been able to before.
“The officers, we will still respond, however, our ability to take action is now in some ways restricted based on the higher threshold of having to prove that the conduct was hazardous or dangerous or blocking,” Manley said.
“Kind of seems like it's a hands tied moment right now with APD. They, I feel, are getting told by people above them that they can't address these certain types of situations like this, which are what I would say just misdemeanor cases, and now at this point it's just becoming overwhelming,” said Carter.
Camping is still prohibited at City Hall, park land, private property or if it leads to any kind of health or safety concerns. One thing Manley isn't clear on just yet is how the updated camping ordinance could affect searches when a crime occurs at a homeless camp.
“Just like you have rights in your home to prevent against an unlawful search, the question is at what point would someone's tent or physical structure reach that same threshold,” Manley said.
Noticeably absent from the meeting was Mayor Steve Adler.
The Downtown Austin Alliance said all city council members and the mayor were alerted to the forum, however, Council member Kathy Tovo was the only one who made it.
“They even noted that this is something that our elected officials have done. Well, please mayor, and all, please show up. If you're proud to say this is something we need to do as a city, then represent your ideas,” said Cleo Petricek, who works with the Safe Austin Project.
For many businesses owners, frustrations continue to rise regarding panhandling and camping downtown. Ann Howard, executive director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, said the focus should be on finding housing for people sleeping on the street, not pointing the finger at them.
“We've got to figure out what works for Austin, and, in the meanwhile, get the resources in play so that people have a bed to sleep in and a bedroom and a home,” Howard said.
One thing mentioned several times at Tuesday’s forum is that policy can be amended.
The mayor has said in the past that when the city manager brings recommendations before council in August, it will likely include changes to the camping ordinance.