Public Safety Commission ponders repealing ordinances that 'criminalize' homelessness

"Should Austin repeal ordinances primarily targeting people experiencing homelessness?" -- a question asked on the agenda of Monday night's Public Safety Commission meeting.  

"The ordinance is there for public order.  They're not there to criminalize homelessness," said APD Assistant Chief Justin Newsom.

Late last year the Austin City Auditor released a report on the effects of 3 city ordinances: panhandling, camping and "sit/lie" that bans sitting or lying in certain parts of downtown Austin.  The report pointed out issuing citations for those is not an effective way of connecting the homeless with the services they need.  Also, other cities like Houston have faced lawsuits for having similar ordinances.

Bill Brice with the Downtown Austin Alliance read post-visitor surveys.

"August 22 of last year: 'Walking trips around the hotel, all the same.  So many people asking for money, food, sex, beer.  Looked like another city that just let itself go.  I don't believe my husband or I will ever go back,'" Brice said.

Newsom advised against a repeal.

"If we didn't have an ordinance against camping, then the front steps out here at City Hall and this space out front could be completely filled with tents and people living there.  And the only recourse would be arresting people for criminal trespass which is a Class B misdemeanor.  City ordinance violations do not appear on criminal history checks," Newsom said.  

Chief Newsom said a criminal trespass charge would follow a person forever.

Edward McHorse is on the Ending Community Homelessness board.  He agrees with Newsom's take on the unintended consequences of repealing those ordinances.  It might end up hurting someone's chances of getting into housing.  

"They screen by criminal history, we're trying to get them to do less of that but the reality is that's one of the things they look at.  That's what I mean by unintended consequences is you could have people who are getting citations right now that don't interfere with their ability to get housing.  They start getting citations that do.  And that would make our work more difficult," McHorse said.  

ECHO recommended not rushing into a repeal of the ordinances and studying those unintended consequences.  In the end the commission voted to direct the City Manager to review the ordinances and seek more input on them.

Jason Williams and Miya Defreeze are homeless.  I asked them both about repealing sit/lie.  They both think that's a good idea.

"Well because it's not like you're bothering anybody or doing anything you’re just in your own little world," Williams said.  

"I'm actually about to get my housing and everything and sometimes I get tired and I fall asleep on the bench you know what I'm saying?  But I know everything's going to work out for the best for me.  I pray for these people each and every day that God will bless them," Defreeze said.

There was also a lot of talk at Monday night's meeting about the ARCH.  Moving it, building something outside of downtown.
And the Salvation Army sent a letter to the commission saying quote: "The 'tent city' that appears to be developing around the perimeter of the ARCH truly presents an unacceptable level of risk for all -- residents, staff, and local business alike.  For this reason, we respectfully request your consideration in tabling any repeal of the sit/lie ordinances for further investigation and review."