Council has in-depth discussion on homeless ordinances framed around 3 'buckets'

The Austin City Council wanted to make sure different opinions had a seat at the table at Thursday's meeting, including people experiencing homelessness.

The entire discussion surrounded Council Member Greg Casar's "Item 45." The original language would have completely repealed Austin's panhandling rules and narrowed the camping and sit-lie rules.

"Let's have an honest conversation in this community about the ‘third bucket,’" said Austin Mayor Steve Adler. Adler framed the entire conversation by using "buckets."  

It's something he's done before on other issues.  

Bucket number 1 is threats to public safety like touching, harassing.  

Bucket number 2 is public health: urinating, defecating. Adler pointed out these changes won't affect those buckets.  Those things are already illegal under different statutes.  

Bucket number 3 is when a person is not endangering anyone.

"It could be someone who is sitting in front of a restaurant who is dealing with personal demons and talking and speaking in a way that the rest of us cannot understand, it could be someone that has not bathed in a long time," Adler said.

Adler introduced an amendment: Instead of repealing the part in the city code related to panhandling... "What it does is it takes the solicitation ordinance and turns it into an 'aggressive confrontation ordinance,'" Adler said.  

Adler invited Police Chief Brian Manley to the podium.  Manley confirmed the first two "buckets" will still be handled by officers. "Correct, if there's a threat to public safety then we have other ordinances or laws that we could use to impact that specific incident," Manley said.

Manley did have some concerns.

"The issue that we have to address is: what are the community expectations and the direction of the council for your police department when we get those calls that we will get because either a resident or a visitor to our community perceives that their safety has been jeopardized, feels that they are not safe for whatever reason," Manley said.

The Mayor also invited up Steve Roberts, an attorney with the Downtown Austin Alliance.  The organization came out strongly against the changes initially. "We had a crane operator send us pictures of human waste in the alleys.  It's that bad," Roberts said.  

Roberts pointed out there's a lot of common ground. "The current statutes, particularly the solicitation statute is unconstitutional.  The others are also unconstitutional.  They're also wrong," he said.  

Joell McNew is President of SafeHorns, a group that advocates for the safety of UT students.  McNew still has some concerns about the changes council is proposing. "A lot of conversation this week has been about Seattle, 'Seattle Is Dying,' Los Angeles and all these other cities that are in crisis already.  And we definitely don't want to head down that road obviously," McNew said.  

Council is set to vote on the items on June 20th.