City leaders respond to community questions on homeless policies at public forum

Tuesday, the fourth public forum on Austin's policies affecting the homeless population was held at St. Edward's University. 

Panelists included four council members, the mayor and homeless service providers. 

It lasted for an hour and a half and was free to the public. Registrations for the event maxed out well before it even started. However, questions could be emailed for those unable to submit them in person. 

"Are we going to see the mayor and the City Council enforce the laws we have and say, ‘There will be no more public encampments. We are going to help the homeless by getting them to shelters so they can get the resources they need'?" asked Reina Wyatt who attended the forum. 

"I'd like to hear that they'll end the camping ordinance and get people, who are not paying property taxes, off of my public land," said Jim, another audience member.  

Since the city loosened restrictions on camping in public, police and the community have noticed more structures, tents and people sleeping on the streets. 

"We're seeing them in the parks, we're seeing them on the street," Wyatt said. 

Some business owners have adapted to the changes, adding locks to bathrooms and dumpsters. Others said they are unable to keep up with the number of people affecting their business. 

"I tried to go inside a Starbucks and an encampment was there blocking the sidewalk and they left filth, trash everywhere. It's going to hurt businesses," said Wyatt. 

"I won't go downtown anymore, because, the last time, my wife and I got hit up probably seven or eight times walking three blocks and pretty much had our way blocked and people kind of accosting us, begging for money," Jim said. 

City leaders said creating and finding housing is the best way to solve the homeless crisis and they plan to spend millions more to build everything from zero barrier emergency shelters to permanent housing. 

"I believe people should not have to live on the streets. It's not healthy.. It's not good at all. So I'd like to see housing," said Austin City Councilwoman Ann Kitchen. 

"I'm very glad that we're having more shelters and more programs, but that should not excuse them to be able to build structures under the highways and byways and everything else for our city, and live in filth and cause that kind of disruption to our normal lifestyle," Jim said. 

Meanwhile, Austin 311 has seen a surge of service requests related to the homeless population. In the month of August, there were 424 calls on that topic alone. Compare that to August of last year when that number was 70. 

"These problems are not new and they aren't only in Austin. This is happening nationwide," said Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza. 

Council said when they consider taking additional action on ordinances affecting the homeless population, the public will be able to voice opinions to City Council. Thats expected to happen at the September 19 council meeting.