Naked City

Sitting Targeted

The City Council might pass an ordinance today (Thursday) to make sitting or lying down on Central Business District sidewalks a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a fine of as much as $500. (The CBD covers most of downtown, stretching from 29th Street to the river and from I-35 to Lamar.) Some exceptions to the prohibition would be permitted, such as medical emergencies and parade spectators. Violators would be arrested only if they ignored a police request to move or stand up.

A long list of CBD business owners supports the ordinance. According to Mike McCone, who represented University Area Partners at a preliminary council vote in May, the ordinance is needed "to establish behavior that is consistent with the civilized society we want to encourage." On that vote, the ordinance squeezed past 4-2, with dissenting Council Members Danny Thomas and Raul Alvarez calling for a more comprehensive plan to address homelessness in Austin -- or at least provide more shelter beds.

"My main concern is that there is more need for beds in the homeless community than we are able to supply," says Alvarez. "We are not at a point where we should adopt a provision that limits where they can go."

Since Sept. 1, after the Planning Commission approved a zoning change early this summer that permits overnight sleeping at the Austin Day Resource Center on Nueces, the Center has allowed 75 to 100 homeless people to camp on its floors at night. During the day, the Center provides access to showers, phones, and laundry facilities. "There was concern that we have a place first for the homeless to sleep," says Assistant City Manager Betty Dunkerley. "It really wasn't fair to enforce [the ordinance] before we had another place for them to go."

Some homeless advocates, however, question whether the additional beds will make a dent in the problem. "The fact that we are going to establish another 60 or 70 spaces for homeless people to sleep in is irrelevant to this ordinance," says House the Homeless President Richard Troxell. "It does not mean that they now have an alternative." Even counting the women's shelter scheduled to open in November, Austin has fewer than 600 emergency beds for an estimated homeless population of 4,000.

If the ordinance does pass, it will be the third in a series affecting Austin's homeless -- following an "aggressive solicitation" ordinance passed last March and 1996's now-famous "camping ban." Last November, the council amended portions of the camping ban that prohibited "sleeping or making preparations to sleep" in the public right-of-way, after Travis Co. Magistrate Jim Coronado ruled that sleeping is a constitutionally protected right.

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