AUSTIN (see video)
Starting Monday, homeless people will be able to camp on city sidewalks
AUSTIN (KXAN) — Changes to the way the City of Austin and its police department will handle homeless people go into effect Monday after the city passed an ordinance largely decriminalizing the act of sitting, laying or camping in public places.
Update: KXAN clarified with the city and Austin Police that the obstruction ordinance (what was previously known as sit-lie) only applies downtown but the changes to the camping and aggressive confrontation ordinance (formerly panhandling) apply citywide.
Proponents of the rule change have argued that this will help homeless people break the cycle of homelessness. A city audit report in November of 2017 found that Austin’s policies limiting camping, sitting, or lying in public spaces may make it more difficult for people to leave homelessness because of a criminal record or arrest warrants. The report also suggested that Austin’s current ordinances pose legal risks because of lawsuits faced by other cities with similar policies.
David Johnson with Grassroots Leadership said if a homeless person is cited for sleeping in a public place, “you have warrants, you’re arrested, then you lose your belongings because you don’t have a place to store them. Then it creates a cycle where you return to the streets.”
In June, Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition explained that these citations related to the camping/ sit-lie ordinance were actively prevention homeless individuals they worked with from getting into housing.
Public input over this ordinance has been tense and heated, at the June 20 council meeting, so many people signed up to speak — both for and against the changes– that the council didn’t get to vote on the changes until 2 a.m.
In an email to the police department, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley said he told City Council that APD “would be limited in our ability to address many of the quality of life calls we get (and usually handle without citation or arrest) given the new thresholds of hazardous or dangerous.”
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The email laid out new guidelines for police officers responding to calls related to homeless people in the city.
Under the changes, APD can only arrest or ticket someone who is soliciting, camping, sitting, or lying in a public area if they present a public health or safety hazard or are blocking a walkway. The changes also make all aggressive confrontations offenses under city code, whether they are panhandling or not.
Camping on private property or in city parks is still not allowed, but camping in public spaces will be allowed.
APD officers will also have to give a person “notice” if they are violating the new camping rules and give them “reasonable amount of time to cease the violating behavior prior to taking enforcement action.”
Camping at City Hall was banned in 2012 after Occupy Austin protesters refused to leave for months. While that rule continues, for now, City Manager Spencer Cronk has been tasked with identifying safe camping areas and to propose reasonable limitations on camping. City Council will take that issue up in the months to come.
Homeless camps in Austin
KXAN visited several homeless camps around Austin Monday, many of the homeless individuals we spoke with were unaware of the new city rules and had been camping at their current locations long before the council took up a vote.
Under 183 in North Austin, KXAN ran into Brandon Graham who lives under the highway. He’s only been homeless for a few months, he grew up in Austin.