Council Watch: No Solicitors
The second of three ordinances designed to "help the homeless take responsibility for their actions" passed the City Council easily Thursday, with only Council Member Danny Thomas voting no.
The ordinances, of which the now-infamous "camping ban" of 1996 was the first, make up the "Personal Responsibility" component of the city's Homeless Self-Sufficiency and Responsibility Initiative. These things, it should go without saying, usually sound nicer than they are.
The "aggressive solicitation" ordinance passed Thursday makes it a Class C misdemeanor to ask for money in a manner that is "intended to or is likely to intimidate." Call it bad panhandling manners. "Aggressive solicitation," as defined by the ordinance, includes "obscene or abusive language," "intentionally or recklessly making physical contact," and "continuing to solicit a person after the person has made a negative response." In April, the council will vote on (and most likely pass) a "sidewalk obstruction" ordinance that will similarly make a Class C misdemeanor of "sitting or lying down on the sidewalk where high pedestrian traffic coincides with a high incidence of petty crime" -- which translates into downtown and the Drag. A considerate clause will make an exception for medical emergencies.
According to Council Member Daryl Slusher, one of the ordinance's sponsors, it's a public safety measure that will protect downtown pedestrians. "If it were something like the sidewalk ordinance, I don't think you should kick people off the streets without giving them somewhere to go," Slusher says. "This is entirely different. I don't think anybody should be able to interfere with people's peaceful enjoyment of the city."
Apparently, everyone on the council agreed except Thomas. "I wanted to make sure we had completed everything we said we were going to do for the homeless," Thomas said. "I don't see just continuing to put the homeless in jail. Passing an ordinance is not looking at the whole problem."
Assistant City Manager Betty Dunkerley describes the city's homeless initiative as two-pronged. "The community offers the services -- long-term and immediate -- that [homeless people] need," Dunkerley says. That's the self-sufficiency part. "On the other side, we encourage them to take responsibility for their actions. We've put some tools in place so we're not only encouraging them, we're nudging them along."
The role of chief nudger falls to the Downtown Austin Community Court, created in 1999 to deal with repeat Class C offenders. Most of the people who pass through the court have been arrested for "nuisance" crimes like vagrancy and public intoxication.) The court has the authority to mandate substance abuse treatment and community service hours instead of, or in addition to, fines and jail time.
But the "personal responsibility" argument sounds thin -- "ludicrous," in fact -- to House the Homeless president Richard Troxell. Troxell argues that for a good number of Austin's homeless -- almost half of whom, he estimates, have full-time jobs -- the problem is economic, not personal. (Community Court statistics show that 58% of Class C offenders are employed, 43% of those full-time.)
"This is in no way an appropriate response," Troxell says. "When minimum-wage workers are driven into homelessness, how can they be held responsible for what happens from then on?"
But even if you buy the "personal responsibility" bit, there's no denying that while the last of the ordinances should pass smoothly through council by the end of next month, the "self-sufficiency" part -- all those services the city is supposed to offer in return -- continues to lag behind.
Two "emergency shelter" sites are slated to open in Austin this summer. A women's and children's shelter opening at the county-owned site of a former SafePlace shelter will make 60 to 80 additional beds available late this summer. Another site, opening at Fourth and Nueces in June, while not technically a living site, will allow another 100 people to camp in the building.
The city is also short -- way short -- on transitional housing, which includes long-term housing support services such as case management and child care. Only 605 beds are available in transitional housing facilities, all of them usually full. Dunkerley says the city would like to finance more transitional facilities, and is sifting through the usual run of options -- tax abatements for developers, public-private partnerships, and start-up capital for operators, among others.
Meanwhile, there's talk of delaying enforcement of the "sidewalk obstruction" ordinance until the shelters open, on the reasonable premise that you ought to give people a place to go before you start locking them up for being where they're not supposed to be. (Though whether 180 beds will put much of a dent in a homeless population estimated in the thousands is another question.)
But though Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman dickered a bit with the wording, enforcement of the aggressive solicitation ordinance went into effect immediately.
Susanna Dickinson, wife of Alamo artillery captain Almeron Dickinson, arrived at the Alamo on February 23, 1836. She spent two weeks before Texas' favorite Big Humiliating Defeat doing housework. Captured after the battle and shot in the knee, she was accorded the privilege by Santa Anna of being the "official messenger of defeat" to General Sam Houston, then stationed in Gonzales. Her message was hair-raising enough to precipitate the huge retreat known as the Runaway Scrape. Dickinson spent the remaining 47 years of her life lobbying the republic, and later the state, of Texas (unsuccessfully) for pension money, getting married (three more times), and writing in her diary. Though it probably makes no difference to her now, Dickinson finally got a bit of recognition from the city of Austin on Thursday when permit and development fees were waived for the Historic Landmark Commission to relocate her Austin home from the future home of the convention center hotel to 10th and Congress. The house will presumably then be designated as a historic landmark.