Downtown business owners pushing hard against city council's homeless 'decriminalization' rules

Item 45 on next week's Austin City Council agenda is an effort to end what Council Member Greg Casar's office refers to as "discriminatory policies" that target Austin's homeless.  

Earlier this week we spoke with criminal justice reform advocate Chris Harris about it. "We don't want to say that just because you're too poor or you don't have shelter, you can't sit or lie down or sleep in our community," Harris said.

If passed, Casar's ordinance will make changes to the city's code: the “camping” section as well as what's called "sit-lie," making it an offense only if someone is doing those things in a manner that puts themselves or others in danger or intentionally impedes the use of public property.  

As for panhandling: the way the code is written now, you can't solicit near an ATM or bank or anywhere downtown between 7pm and 7am. Casar is pushing to repeal those rules but assures the community "aggressive panhandling" or any sort of aggressive behavior will still be illegal under different laws.

"We don't think that it's appropriate that Austin becomes a place where we say 'it's ok for you to live out on our streets and to camp out anywhere that you want,'" said Bill Brice with the Downtown Austin Alliance. Brice and the commercial property owners the DAA represents are making a hard push against these changes.

"We know from our businesses downtown as well as those operating our hotels, our convention and visitor industry that aggressive panhandling for example is the number one reason that people who visit Austin as individual tourists or as part of meetings and conventions say they will never come back," Brice said.

James Rodriguez is a frequent face in downtown Austin.  

Rodriguez calls himself a "homeless street performer."  He makes roses out of palm leaves.

"It's $3 it's not a panhandler.  It's a person that makes something out of anything and if somebody likes it he will receive a donation for it," Rodriguez said.  

As for business owners that don't appreciate his presence downtown… "We can get all the other homeless people here in this city and get you shut down, is that what they what?  That's what's going to happen if they keep harassing the homeless with the police," he said.  

Craig Staley is one of the owners of Royal Blue Grocery.  They have 6 downtown Austin stores.

"We're affected, our revenue is affected by what typically happens on this street with regard to the homelessness.  We hear from people all the time 'well I'll walk 3 blocks and go to your Third and Brazos store because I just don't want to deal with that over there," Staley said.

Staley says council needs to slow down on this.  He's worried these changes will take away a vital tool for Austin Police officers.  He says downtown should be exempt from it.

"I mean we don't need an ordinance for open containers in Clarksville but we do downtown.  And there are reasons why we need some of those rules to remain in place downtown," Staley said.

Council is set to discuss this item at next week's meeting. (June 6)