City Council Ponders Repeal of Flawed Camping Ban
"Trip wire," says Bobby Joe Janes, pointing out a thin black wire leading up to a bouquet of empty beer cans in a nearby tree. "That's my alarm," he says, and then whistles loudly into the woods. "We're here!" he announces down the path, and then emerges past the low tree limbs into his outdoor living room. "Tree to tree carpeting," is Janes' description of the relative luxury which he has eked out for himself and his two most recent companions. Anthony, 39, and Ann, 35, sit on one of the discarded couches which Janes has salvaged, waiting for either heat or swarming mosquitoes to motivate them to go to the bus stop where they will take their daily ride into downtown Austin. Janes, 51, lives in the woods on the outskirts of Austin not by choice, but because he was driven there by the city's no-camping ordinance, which prevents him from setting up living accommodations, such as bedding, in public places. Janes, who has been homeless for many years, arrived in Austin in February, and the first time he received a $200 fine for camping was also the first time he learned that it was illegal to sleep downtown. Three camping citations later, Janes decided to high-tail it out of the city altogether and set up camp in the woods.
According to Janes and his friend Anthony, the police department is not concerned with their living accommodations, as long as they live in the woods as opposed to in town. "I think the ordinance was passed because the homeless embarrassed the city council. The reason they passed it was to keep street people out of the metropolitan downtown area," says Janes, who points out that dozens of people are living in the woods near his site.
In fact, the city council is well aware that the camping ban has served to drive the homeless out of downtown and deeper into the woods. The council originally passed the ordinance in January 1996 under pressure from central city business owners, specifically the Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA), and business-friendly Mayor Bruce Todd. With Todd gone, and seven progressive councilmembers on the dais, they are now gearing up to repeal the ordinance. Despite their common goal, a rift is building in council over how to handle the camping ban. The question is not if the council will repeal, it's how soon. Homeless advocates say that outlawing sleeping is unconstitutional, but business owners are begging the council not to let the homeless population move back downtown, and an otherwise unified council is breaking ranks to support one position or the other.
Councilmember Gus Garcia, who originally voted for the ordinance, is heading up the fight to repeal it, but not at the speed some would like. Garcia's plan is to model Austin's solution after those of cities such as Orlando, Florida, and Portland, Oregon, which have dealt with homelessness through a combination of no-camping ordinances and city-run homeless shelters. Originally, Garcia favored an immediate repeal, but after meeting with downtown leaders he changed his tune. Now Garcia is talking about making the repeal contingent on finding alternative shelter for homeless violators. The problem is that, barring a miracle interim solution, building a homeless shelter is, at best, two years down the road, and homeless advocates argue that dealing with the ordinance cannot wait that long.
"Just because a person is homeless... does not mean they can't live with a little dignity," says Bobby Joe Jones
Richard Troxell, co-chair of the advocacy group House the Homeless, regularly comes to council meetings with sign-wielding protesters to speak against the ordinance. Although he was originally optimistic at Garcia's willingness to repeal, Troxell is now concerned about the timeline. "They're trying to draw a linkage between the two issues and say that when they get the [homeless] center done then [the homeless] will have a place to go. We cannot allow a linkage. This is a bad law and it has to go," says Troxell.
Although she has chosen, for the moment, to support Garcia's efforts, Councilmember Jackie Goodman, who voted against the ordinance in 1996, is inclined to agree with Troxell. "Personally, my feeling is the sooner the better," she says. "The law is unconstitutional, impractical, and mean."
Troxell supports his call for a repeal by pointing to a U.S. District Court case from Dallas, Johnson v. The City of Dallas, which established that homelessness itself could not be criminalized. "The court said that there are certain human activities which must occur. Eating, sleeping, breathing. As long as homeless people have no other place to be, they may not be prevented from sleeping in public," Troxell says, adding that Austin's law "is punitive in nature and it is being selectively enforced. It is obviously a crime of economic status."
Garcia has vowed to take some sort of action on the ordinance in August, but he admits that he is looking for the kind of compromise which will probably please no one. "We can do surgery to the ordinance, but we're going to have to have a period of transition. I don't know what to do in the period of transition, but we're not going to do what Troxell wants, which is immediately repeal, and we're not going to do what DAA wants, which is not to touch the ordinance. We're going to touch the ordinance," says Garcia.
The DAA's executive director, Charles Betts, says that the ordinance is an important tool for the police. "The knock is that the ordinance criminalizes homelessness, but in our view this ordinance criminalizes behavior," he says. In fact, the "behavior" Betts is referring to, such as urinating in public or intoxication, are actually addressed under separate laws, not the camping ordinance.
"It's not going to solve the homeless problem but it's a tool that we use and I'd like to keep it," says Police Lt. Greg Lasley, whose sector of the city includes downtown and the University of Texas area, where the highest concentration of the homeless live. Kirk Becker, a homeless man who serves on the city's Homeless Task Force, points out that if the ordinance is enforced selectively to curb offensive behavior, then the law is flawed. "They say [the ordinance] is a tool, but cops don't enforce laws as tools, because that's discrimination," says Becker.
"We may need to replace or alter what we have so that it will apply to the offenses that are actually being perpetrated," concurs Councilmember Beverly Griffith, hinting at the shape that Garcia's "surgery" will take.
"The law we had before was just against sleeping in a public place, but a lot of times people weren't sleeping," says APD's Lasley. Although he now speaks in favor of the ordinance, Lasley was quoted in the Austin Business Journal in April as saying: "I personally have arrested the same person twice in an eight-hour shift for the same crime. A lot of officers are down there asking, `What's the point?'" Although Lasley denies it, Garcia suggests that Lasley has been silenced by his superior officers, who do not want the failure of the ordinance publicized. And indeed, APD Lieutenant Michael Urubek, who spoke to the Chronicle about the ban in February 1996, confirms that he has been reprimanded for speaking candidly about the camping ban.
According to Janes, the police are well aware of the dozens of encampments on the outskirts of the city, but pay no attention to them. "A cop passed me one day gathering firewood out here, but he just nodded his head and kept on driving," he says. Lt. Lasley confirms that the police are only entering the woods to look for homeless campers on request from neighborhood residents or hikers. "I don't have officers that are going out on a daily basis searching through inconspicuous areas," he says.
Beyond all the anecdotal evidence of the ordinance's flaws, the arrest statistics paint a vivid picture of its failings. In a memo to the council issued by Assistant City Manager Joe Lessard, he outlines the statistical failures of the ordinance: "Between January 1996 and February 1997, 2,087 camping ordinance violations were filed... of these... 1,283 are still pending. For the 785 individuals found guilty, 686 received `jail credit time' as payment.... Offenders are then free to return and pick up where they left off prior to their arrest." In fact, of the 2,087 people issued camping violations, only 79 have ended up paying the $200 fine.
Cecelia Wood, attorney for House the Homeless, says that many of the homeless who have been issued camping citations have been challenging the law in court with great success. "They are quite successful with winning the jury trials because it's so evident, if you put it to six people, that it's a ridiculous law," says Wood.
Campus Sweet Campus
All parties agree, however, that a city-funded homeless campus will go a long way towards solving the crisis over the ordinance. At present, the only facility for the homeless in Austin which is free of charge is the Salvation Army at 501 E. Eighth, but it only has 128 beds. The Homeless Task Force estimates that Austin has a homeless population of 6,000 people, but that is not the only failing of the Salvation Army. Many homeless people say that they cannot stay at the Salvation Army for a variety of reasons, one in particular being the fact that the facility is run by a religious organization. "I'm discriminated against at the Salvation Army simply because my ideology does not conform," says Deward Buchanan, 65, who is homeless. Others site the "seven days in, 90 days out" policy, or simply the undesirable company, as deterrents to using the facility.
Troxell argues that the city is obligated to provide help for the homeless, who he says are not, by and large, transient, but are in fact long-term residents of Austin. "Until we offer all the services necessary to achieve self-sufficiency, we will not know who among them will and will not accept our help," says Troxell.
Anna and Anthony live in the woods outside of Austin.
To listen to the optimistic Homeless Task Force tell it, modeling Austin's homeless campus on Orlando's plan will solve many of our homelessness problems. However, Anthony and Ann, who have been homeless in Orlando, say that they will not get near that city's homeless campus. "I saw a guy get stabbed to death over a donut there. It's too crowded and there's a lot of TB. It's just a big, giant building and you gotta sleep with your shoes on. It's no way to live," says Anthony.
Similar to the mid-Eighties debate over the location of the Salvation Army, however, the debate over locating the homeless campus in Austin promises to be a hairy one. Recently, after a Homeless Task Force member leaked information to the press on the three locations under consideration, the neighborhoods surrounding the proposed sites were up in arms.
Until the city of Austin makes some sort of provision for the homeless besides simply outlawing their behavior we can expect to see them among us, both downtown and in the woods. Garcia is optimistic about the negotiation process over the ordinance, but disappointed in Austinites' failure to embrace the homeless campus concept. "What we have in Austin is a stone age mentality," he declares. "One hundred and eighty miles to the north, Fort Worth, a city of about the same size as Austin, has three times the number of beds that we do. So for those who talk about Austin being such an advanced society... is that just a PR ploy, or what?"