Council postponing 'homeless ordinance' vote to clear up misinformation

Tuesday morning's Austin City Council "work session" was all about an ongoing crisis in Austin: people experiencing homelessness.

The city's interim homeless strategy officer Veronica Briseno says the city started making plans to address it all the way back in 1985. The last "point in time count" earlier this year showed a 5 percent increase in those living on the streets.

"I would like to note that while it's a 5 percent increase overall from 2018 to 2019 if you look at the past 5 years, this is a 142 percent increase of unsheltered individuals experiencing homelessness," she said.

Mayor Steve Adler assured the community and the press, perception is important.  

"I'm concerned about a headline that says 'Homelessness Up 142% Over The Last 5 years.'  I'm also equally concerned about a headline that says 'We Have Reduced Homelessness Over the Last 9 Years.' Both statements are true," Adler said.

Adler says there is a lack of understanding in the community that work is actually being done. Some of the work includes considering a housing-focused shelter, possibly in south Austin.

The estimated annual cost of running the shelter was discussed at the work session: $2.5 million. 

"I think it's appropriate for the city to put in dollars, I think it's important for the city to partner with other agencies or other governmental agencies," councilmember Ann Kitchen said. "As well as the community about how we fund that on an ongoing basis. In the scheme of things that's not a lot of money."

On Tuesday afternoon, councilmember Greg Casar laid out his agenda item that would repeal the city's panhandling rules and make changes to the camping restrictions as well as what's called "sit-lie."

"The intent is to no longer have as a criminal offense things like sleeping in your car if it's not endangering anybody's health or safety or...impeding use of public space, to no longer ban asking for money, say at night or asking for money in a way that is non-threatening," Casar said.

There was a brief Q&A between Casar and city attorney Anne Morgan about what the action really means. Casar's office is assuring those with concerns that "aggressive" panhandling or any aggressive behavior will still be illegal -- statues like prohibiting simple assault or disorderly conduct. 

Casar recommended postponing the vote until June 20 to help clear up misconceptions.

The councilmembers in attendance Tuesday were supportive of Casar's item and making these changes to the city code. 

Mayor Pro-Tem Delia Garza got emotional when talking about a discussion she had with her daughter. 

"We're having to explain to our children that people are in our community that don't have homes and I think this is a way that government can do good," Garza said.

Council staff says the item will still be discussed at Thursday's meeting with stakeholders,possibly law enforcement and business owners.

They say June 20 is when the public will get a chance to weigh in.