Council Bites the Bullet, Helps the Homeless

Decriminalization advocates prevail, new shelter deal OK'd

At its meeting that stretched into early Friday morning, June 21, City Council took major steps to confront Austin’s homelessness crisis by reducing existing criminal penalties and by approving a new housing-focused shelter in South Austin. Both items garnered hours of impassioned testimony from both sides.

Council Member Ann Kitchen

The marquee item on the agenda (Item 185) lifted the city’s 25-year-old ban on camping, sitting, or lying down in the public right away, unless doing so causes an obstruction, and changes references to “solicitation” to “aggressive confrontation,” allowing people to ask for money in a way that is not threatening. Laws against assault, harassment, and other hostile behavior are still on the books, and camping in public parks is still banned. Police officers would also have to issue a warning to anyone before writing a citation for any of these offenses.

Before the vote, speakers filled the chambers to capacity; much of the opposition came from Downtown stakeholders, such as Kimberly Levinson, vice president of the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association, who signaled support for housing those without homes but voiced concerns about the “very ill effects” of dialing back the ordinances without new rules that “protect people and make people feel safe walking around Downtown Austin.”

Parents and students from the UT group Safehorns echoed these concerns, citing the “danger” they feel walking along the Drag or through West Campus where people congregate on the streets. Many characterized those people as alcoholics or drug addicts who refuse help – a myth that advocates say perpetuates the cycle of suffering and hopelessness that can make exiting homelessness so difficult.

But those speaking in support of the ordinance changes – including social justice activists, members of the clergy, and those with lived experience – vastly outnumbered those opposed. Although many felt Council did not go far enough, especially with the compromise “aggressive confrontation” language which they fear will give police too much discretions, they acknowledged the votes were a meaningful step forward.

“For too long we’ve relied on police and jails to handle our social and economic problems in our communities,” said Chris Harris, a policy analyst with the social activism group Just Liberty. “It’s going to take this entire city, every man, woman and child, in order to fix this problem.” Steven Potter, who is currently without housing and advises the city on the experience of homelessness, spoke again before Council late Thursday night, saying the “old ways” represented by the ordinances were not only ineffective, but potentially lethal for individuals with nowhere else to go. “Let go of the old ways,” he urged Council, “and work with the homeless on real solutions.”

On the dais, Council largely agreed that criminalizing these behaviors acted as a barrier to lifting people out of homelessness, but some on the dais (Council Members Kathie Tovo, Ann Kitchen, and Alison Alter) pushed to consider the camping ban again in August; between now and then, City Manager Spencer Cronk has been tasked to find locations in each council district where those without access to shelter could safely camp. Their colleagues disagreed, with CM Greg Casar and Mayor Steve Adler insisting the amendments be approved that night. “We can’t continue perpetuating injustice simply because we haven’t fixed everything yet,” Casar said, adding that delaying the vote would be “a stain on my conscience.” The camping amendment was pulled for a separate vote, passing 9-2 (Tovo and Alter against); the other changes passed unanimously.

Earlier in the day, following a tense public hearing, City Council voted unanimously to move forward with property acquisition for a new “housing first” shelter, the South Austin Housing Center. Neighbors near the site at 1112 W. Ben White, frustrated by Council’s quick timeline for the project - the proposed location was only made public last week - shared their experiences with those who camp nearby under the bridge at Manchaca and Ben White. While some took a moment to insist they cared about solving the city’s homelessness problems, many insisted the 100-bed facility would expose their families to drug use, public indecency, harassment, and a host of other frightening issues.

Those things do happen at Downtown’s Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, where people have congregated throughout the day to secure services or a bed for the night. However, that model for ARCH is changing to one that will also be used at SAHC; no walk-ins or drop-in services, with clients referred to the shelter by a partner social-service provider and, once admitted, assigned caseworkers to help connect them with permanent housing within 60 days.

Much of the vitriol from speakers was directed at their CM, District 5’s Ann Kitchen, who after calmly listening to her constituents responded, “We are way past time to really come to grips with issues in our city around homelessness.” From there, Kitchen’s colleagues came to her defense by applauding her “courage” and “bravery” for standing firm and continuing to support the shelter in her district.

The normally restrained mayor, on the other hand, grew visibly frustrated as shelter opponents repeatedly interrupted his Council’s deliberations. Acknowledging their fears, he likewise said it was past time to take serious steps toward housing the thousands of Austinites who live without shelter. “By God, we have to do it,” Adler said, “We have to show the resolve to get this done.” He added that Kitchen would soon not be alone: “We’re going to locate this kind of (shelter) all over the city, because we have to locate them all over the city.”

Read more of this week's Council news.

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