New, Improved Camping Ban Fizzles at Council

Consensus collapses as the hot summer of homelessness drags on

Photo by John Anderson

City Council declined on Friday afternoon, Sept. 20, to act on proposed ordinances that could have brought back bans on public camping in some parts of Austin.

The momentum for action on new restrictions aimed at those experiencing homelessness – which built steadily all week as competing proposals were unveiled, revised, and debated in public and the media – dissolved in less than an hour once councilmembers began deliberating in earnest. Several CMs expressed discomfort with the entire process that has unfolded at City Hall since June, when Council voted unanimously to step back from decades-old policies making it illegal to sit, lie, or sleep in public, prompting a community outcry that’s lasted all summer.

Eventually, Mayor Steve Adler conceded, “We won't get there today,” while acknowledging “from where I sit, this is the most critical priority in our community." Ultimately, an exhausted and exasperated Council voted 9-1 (Jimmy Flannigan voting no and Alison Alter absent) to postpone any action. While Council is still interested in having more clear-cut rules – and, perhaps, identifying some places in the city where camping et al. are outright banned – it also wants to hear from Lori Pampilo Harris, the city’s new homelessness strategy officer (who began work Sept. 9) in a public work session to get her input and recommendations.

The measures Adler had hoped to adopt on Friday created phased categories of new restrictions on camping, sitting, or lying. Category 1 rules, to have been enforced immediately, included current ordinance language (prohibiting activities that threaten public health and safety) plus new limits on camping on sidewalks and at building entrances within specified “clearance zones.” Category 2 rules, to be . . applied to a defined radius around shelter sites, floodplains, traffic islands and medians, would be triggered once housing and services were available to those in need near those locations. Category 3 rules, to be applied citywide, could go into effect either upon further Council action, or when the city achieved a housing wait list of less than 60 days. Those rules could have brought back a citywide ban on sidewalk camping, or upon sitting or lying in “high pedestrian and vehicular traffic areas.”

At the Friday meeting, APD Assistant Chief Justin Newsom, in response to Council questions, said establishing clearance zones would require officers to carry a tape measure to determine accurately whether a person was in violation of the rules, lest the charges not stand up in court. For that reason, Newsome said, “the best solution is (a ban) on sidewalks, period.” Newsom also raised concern over proposals to require APD officers to connect people with services if they do not voluntarily comply with the rules, by engaging the city’s multidisciplinary Homelessness Outreach Street Team. Currently, the HOST team works primarily Downtown, Monday-Friday, 9-5, Newsom told Council, as he questioned what officers were meant to do at other times and places.

Also delayed on Friday was a separate Council resolution that would provide direction to City Manager Spencer Cronk on how to implement the supportive services that would go in tandem with the Category 2 and 3 rules. One immediate action item in that resolution was to identify city-owned land as temporary shelter space for people living in encampments near the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless and in South Austin under Ben White Boulevard near Manchaca and S. Lamar – two hot spots in the districts of the CMs, Kathie Tovo and Ann Kitchen, who sought to move forward on the resolution even if Council postponed action on the rules themselves.

But Flannigan, along with CMs Paige Ellis and Pio Renteria, said Harris should be given time to evaluate the plentiful direction Council has already provided before taking more onto her plate. Along with the questions raised by Newsom, Council still needs to clarify how camping, sitting or lying should be restricted not only on sidewalks, streets, and near shelters but also along creeks and in wildfire risk areas, as well as how and when signage should be posted announcing the rules.

Prior to tackling homelessness on Friday (and after hearing lengthy and often heated public testimony on that topic on Wednesday), Council also held its regularly scheduled meeting on Thursday, Sept. 19, at which it approved unanimously an outside look at how APD has handled cases of reported sexual assaults. The contract with the Police Executive Research Forum authorizes a “comprehensive evaluation” into how Austin police have conducted and processed these investigations and why many have not resulted in prosecution. PERF has subcontracted the Women’s Law Project and the Wellesley Center for Women to assist its efforts and prepare its report.

The controversial 4700 E. Riverside zoning case was postponed until Oct. 17 at the applicant’s request; as the meeting began, Renteria, whose district includes most of the East Riverside Corridor, called out activist group Defend Our Hoodz for threatening him and his family at their home Wednesday night. The group has long been opposed to the project, with several of its members arrested at prior meetings for disrupting the proceedings. The Renterias have been agitated by their action for just as long, and the District 3 CM finally let them have it on Thursday. “I have no respect for that little group,” Renteria said. “You have done harm to East Austin. Y’all come down here and say you're defending the hood, but at the same time, you're running my people out of our neighborhood.”

Council also approved, for the first time ever, a fund dedicated to supporting the city’s live music scene. The new dollars will come from the recent increase of the city’s Hotel Occupancy Taxand serve as a complement to existing HOT funding for (mostly non-profit) cultural arts groups. Most of that 2% HOT increase is intended to fund a future expansion of the Austin Convention Center; opponents of that expansion, who forced Proposition B onto this November’s ballot in an attempt to thwart it, say the city could instead be funding live music with existing HOT revenues, a claim the city counters would be against state law.

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Austin City Council, City Council, camping ban, no sit no lie, homelessness, Steve Adler, Ann Kitchen, Kathie Tovo, Jimmy Flannigan, Paige Ellis, Pio Renteria, Justin Newsom, Homelessness Outreach Street Team, HOST, Hotel Occupancy Tax, Austin Convention Center, Police Executive Research Forum, PERF, sexual assault, Lori Pampilo Harris

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