City of Austin working on camping restrictions, how to enforce them

The morning after the latest public forum on homelessness attended by hundreds, Austin Mayor Steve Adler is feeling positive about fixing Austin's homeless issues. "Frankly for the first time in 5 years I actually see a way forward and have not felt that over the last 5 years," Adler said.  

On Friday morning, the Assistant City Manager and a representative with the Homeless Strategy Office sent out a memo.  It's their response to council direction back in June that tasked them with bringing back reasonable time and place opportunities and limitations on camping, sitting and lying.

Also, to provide possible options for "non-criminal remedies or tools" related to those restrictions. "I think the Manager's memo points to high pedestrian-trafficked areas as not being safe.  We know that to be the case because the high pedestrian-trafficked areas, we don't let bicycles be on the sidewalk, we don't let scooters get parked," Adler said. 

The Mayor pointed to an old transportation department map detailing which sidewalks downtown were restricted to bikes.  He suggested that would be a good starting point. Adler also expects Council to add some specificity to the ideas the City Manager's office is proposing. "I would see us also considering saying that there shouldn't be camping, sitting or lying proximate to shelters," he said.  

Adler says there will be an emphasis on non-police enforcement mechanisms, but he clarifies police will be able to cite someone. "I think if we have areas where it's against the ordinance to camp, sit and lie then those things could be enforced with tickets and arrests.  Because that's not a safe place or the best place for someone to be," Adler said.  

But the Mayor says if police are arresting or ticketing someone who is homeless -- that's a loss for this community. "Because ultimately while we would have effectively enforced a safety requirement we will have done it in a way that creates as many if not more problems than the one that we solve," he said.

"It doesn't matter if you're a Republican, Democrat or Independent, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, I mean people are furious with the way this was done," said Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday. Casaday has been critical of the ordinance changes from day 1.  

He responds to Friday's comments from the Mayor and the memo: "It's a good start.  You can't really have an ordinance without an enforcement piece.  So that would enable officers to make people move when they're in certain areas," he said.

Mayor Adler points out there are places where it's illegal to camp right now.  He says if someone is camping at a school they could be arrested.  The list just needs to be clearer and wider. "I have seen people camping in this City in places that are dangerous, and we need to prevent that," Adler said.

We reached out to criminal justice reform advocate Chris Harris.  

He says most of what the Manager's office is proposing clarifies the ticketing criteria that never went away: basically someone puts themselves or others in danger or blocking pathways.  
He says that clarification is needed.

Adler says Council is set to discuss some ideas they come up with on September 19th.



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