Solving homelessness top priority for city council

Art Randle, Jennifer Wider, and Michael Ross are "people experiencing homelessness" in Austin. 

We met them near the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless or ARCH downtown, but they don't sleep there.

"This morning I woke up about a block from here," Randle said.

Randle is a sketch artist and a veteran.

"I served from 1986 to 1990 in the United States Navy, aboard the U.S.S. Constellation," Randle said.

Wider is coming out of living in a halfway house. She's visiting those she calls her family near the ARCH.

"Right now I'm in the process of trying to find somewhere to keep me from being on the streets. Because I don't want to go back to this," Wider said.

Ross says he's working two jobs.

"And I'm trying to get a third job so I can buy me something, that way nobody can kick me out. I don't ask for help," Ross said.

"We're trying to do everything we can do," said Austin Mayor Steve Adler.

Solving homelessness is the top priority for the Austin City Council, according to Adler.

Adler reported recently the annual point in time count revealed 2,255 people living on the streets of Austin: a five percent increase over last year.

"It's a challenge that's becoming more and more visible over time. More and more people camping on the roads," Adler said.  

People camp under roads like I-35, SH 71.

The City is working on a number of projects, including hiring a homeless strategy officer, re-scoping the services at the ARCH, and putting shelter beds in South Austin. This week, Council is expected to take a vote on making big changes to the City Code: ordinances they feel "criminalize" people experiencing homelessness.

They're looking at changes like easing the restrictions currently on the books related to camping, sitting or lying down. This means no more handing out citations unless a person is putting themselves or others at risk. 

"Wouldn't anybody feel a little better? But it's like I'm doing it anyway so what does it matter? I'm going to sleep ok?" Randle said. 

Adler is proposing morphing the City's detailed rules on solicitation or panhandling into an "aggressive confrontation" ordinance, assuring the public aggressive panhandling or any aggressive behavior will still be illegal. But making it very clear that simply asking someone for money in a non-threatening way, is protected by the first amendment.

"That would be the most biggest mistake the city will ever make and they know it," Ross said. "You're creating a problem when you're telling people it's ok to panhandle. Go out and work. That's a 'no no.'"

Adler, along with Council Member Greg Casar, who proposed these changes, insist whatever they do won't take tools away from police officers when it comes to public safety and public health.

"But if a person isn't bothering anyone, is just homeless, is just sleeping on a sidewalk, isn't getting in anybody's way, isn't causing any problem, then it's really counterproductive and particularly unconstitutional for us to arrest that person. So the question is 'what do we do?'" Casar said.

The Downtown Austin Alliance and business owners like Craig Staley with Royal Blue Grocery are struggling with what's happening on the streets. Staley says it's hurting businesses economically.

"There are people that don't want to come to this store in particular on Congress Avenue because of the element that they encounter on the streets, the way it smells," Staley said.

Staley says he believes changes to the ordinances are needed, but Council should take a lot more time to get this right.

"We don't want to see Congress Avenue turn into a bunch of tents. We don't want to see people lying and sitting on busy sidewalks so why couldn't we create an ordinance that says 'well certain sidewalks you can't sit or lie, others you can?'" Staley said.

University of Texas Police Chief David Carter sent a letter to Adler expressing his concerns.

"By no means would I suggest that status quo is the very best option however I do believe that we need to focus on maintaining police discretion to act," Carter said.

Other cities are cautionary tales for Austin in Carter's view.

"The last thing that the University of Texas would want to see is a situation similar to what that's been reported in Seattle, or Los Angeles, Skid Row, or San Francisco where there is a large number of tents, debris, human waste, disease," Carter said.

Ellen Troxclair sat on the 10-1 Austin City Council for 4 years. In her opinion the city blindly throws money at the homelessness issue.

As for changing the ordinances, Troxclair says that's not what we should focus on.

"Everybody agrees that homelessness is a major issue in our city.  But of all the things that we could be doing to address it, this is not what we should be focusing on," Troxclair said.
She also questioned having a homeless shelter near an entertainment district.

"Is having a homeless shelter in the middle of an entertainment district where we have alcohol, drugs, tourists, is that really the best place to get people help and get them rehabilitated and back on their feet?" Troxclair said.

As Council Members often say: the solution to homelessness is housing, but affordability and availability is an issue.

"Me personally? I can't afford to be in housing," Randle said.  

"I can't afford it. Affordable means affordable, I can't pay $1200 for a one-bedroom," Ross said.  

"Then you're on a waiting list. And then 'ok since we're on a waiting list, is there somewhere else that you can help me get into while I'm waiting on this waiting list?' They don't have that. So I'll be out on the streets," Wider said.

The Royal Blue owner mentioned putting some restrictions on where people can and can't camp. Something like that might be on the way.

Council will consider another resolution this week that would direct the City Manager to explore a number of solutions including "reasonable time and place opportunities and limitations on camping, sitting, and lying" as well as non-criminal ways of enforcing that.