Sidewalk Ordinance Softened

At Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman's urging, the City Council has altered the wording of an ordinance that would have prohibited sitting or lying on downtown sidewalks. Even with the change, though, the ordinance -- which passed 4-3 on last Thursday's second reading, necessitating a third reading -- would make a Class C misdemeanor of blocking the public right-of-way and building entrances in a way that would "hinder the unobstructed passage of a person" or "require a person to take evasive action to avoid physical conduct." A police officer must warn individuals who block or hinder pedestrians that doing so is illegal, and ask them to move before issuing a citation. Council members Danny Thomas, Beverly Griffith, and Raul Alvarez voted against the ordinance, calling for the city to develop a comprehensive plan to deal with homelessness.

Homeless advocates alleged that the ordinance's original version brazenly waltzed around a previous legal ruling that homeless people's right to sleep on public property is constitutionally protected. That decision came last November when magistrate Jim Coronado struck down portions of the city's 1996 "no camping" ordinance prohibiting "sleeping or making preparations to sleep" on public property.

"The original law, I thought, could be interpreted as an attempt to take the back door into the old camping ban ordinance," Goodman said. "This law is no longer about certain people. It is only about obstructive behavior." Griffith said that enforcing the ordinance would be "important," but only after the city's job placement, training, outreach, and social services are in place.

Austin still has fewer than 500 beds available for a homeless population estimated at 4,000. Does the ordinance include a provision to protect violators in the event that shelters are full? "No," says city attorney David Douglas. "The ordinance simply speaks for itself."

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