Austin is beginning to weigh changes to a trio of ordinances that primarily target the city’s homeless population, including laws that crack down on panhandling, public camping and loitering in parts of downtown.
The city’s Public Safety Commission in a split vote Monday night directed City Manager Spencer Cronk to get more input from Austin police and the public on how changes to the ordinances would affect the homeless population, including laws that ban panhandling downtown from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., outlaw camping in public spaces and prohibit sitting or lying down for longer than 30 minutes while not waiting for a bus or using a city bench.
A city audit last year found the ordinances did little to help Austin’s homeless population and were a drain on city resources. Moreover, the audit said the laws could place Austin at legal risk because the city had not provided enough beds for homeless people and therefore could not punish them for having no place to go.
Police estimate as many as 2,000 homeless people live in Austin but have only 150 shelter beds available to them.
“These ordinances do nothing to help homeless people, and they do nothing to help people get out of homelessness,” said commission member Daniela Nuñez, who sponsored the resolution that was approved 5-3 Monday night.
Cronk has submitted to the City Council proposed updates to the solicitation ordinance, which would make panhandling legal at all times of day downtown but would restrict aggressive panhandling, such as following people or repeatedly asking for money, particularly outside places like banks, ATMs and transportation facilities but not in public areas like parks and sidewalks.
He has asked to have until November to review the other two ordinances.
The commission did not vote on any final changes Monday.
According to the audit, the city from fiscal 2014 to 2016 issued 18,000 citations for the three ordinances. While a citation does not get recorded on a person’s criminal record, 90 percent of violators skipped court and 72 percent were served with arrest warrants, making it difficult to later find housing or get a job, the audit found.
But Austin police say they need the laws to maintain public order.
“We’re stuck in a bad situation,” Assistant Chief Justin Newsom said Monday. “We are beat up from the business owners downtown and the residents of various places saying, ‘Why are you letting people sleep in the sidewalks? Why are you allowing this eyesore downtown at the (Austin Resource Center for the Homeless)?’ And my answer to them is, ‘Where do we tell these people to go?’”
Interim Police Chief Brian Manley said at a public forum this year that Austin could not arrest its way out of its homeless problem, but he would never encourage officers not to enforce the law.
Homeless rights advocates, including Chris Harris with the nonprofit Grassroots Leadership, say the laws criminalize people for “simply trying to exist.”
All sides agree something must be done. Austin’s homeless population this year increased by 5 percent, according to an annual census.
The City Council in April approved an action plan that calls for $30 million annually to solve the city’s homeless problem, including boosting housing and support services, outreach and shelters. At its June 14 meeting it will consider projects and how to pay for them.
Marissa McGovern, who manages a restaurant and bar in the Red River entertainment district, just a block from the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless shelter, said she has seen a noticeable increase in the homeless population and is afraid to walk to work because of what happens outside her business every day. Hundreds of mentally ill people line the sidewalks, sleep on the pavement and aggressively hound her for money, she said.
“My only line of defense is knowing that I can call the police if I need assistance,” McGovern said. “When I heard there could be a repeal on ordinances that keep me safe, my staff safe, my customers safe, I had to stand up and let my voice be heard. The situation in this area of town is like a post-apocalyptic war zone. … We are punishing these most vulnerable and disturbed among us and exiling them to squalor on our sidewalks. Overturning these ordinances and allowing them free rein of camping on the sidewalks can’t be the best that we can do.”