'Balancing' the Homeless

Proposed laws would recriminalize the usual suspects

Richard Troxell, activist for the homeless, at a 2002 protest
Richard Troxell, activist for the homeless, at a 2002 protest (Photo By Jana Birchum)

At holiday time, there's no room at the inn – and soon there may be no room on the streets, either, if you're homeless in Austin. The city is currently considering four proposed changes to ordinances concerning public sleeping, panhandling, and loitering. The proposals, developed by staff and briefed to the City Council on Nov. 4, are in part a response to increased pressure from downtown business owners that the city do more about transients. As it happens, the move also coincides with a recent national report designating Austin as the nation's 10th-"meanest" city to the homeless. Suddenly, the chronic issue of homelessness has been abruptly pushed to the forefront of local politics.

Highlighted by new restrictions on panhandling, the proposed ordinance would criminalize solicitation, sleeping in public, blocking sidewalks, and standing in a roadway. Pending the council's response, staff is expected to revise the proposals and return with more precise recommendations early next year (see box).

Richard Troxell, president of Austin's House the Homeless advocacy organization, considers the proposed changes "a trial balloon. I think [the council] had every intention of coming up with the ordinances, but what they were doing [initially] was testing the waters." Troxell objects to all four proposals. The solicitation change, he believes, either would affect everything from charity drives to Girl Scout cookie sales, or else would be "inappropriately applied singularly to homeless people." The same seems true for the roadway proposal. "By state law, you cannot be in an area that's used for traffic – period," said Troxell. "Regardless of the fact, they wish to revisit that to make it illegal to stand on the side of the road." Troxell also worries about the potential impact on the Austin Advocate, the local newspaper produced by the homeless and sold on the street for donations.

"Another ordinance they wish to address is the sidewalk ordinance; what they intend to do is outlaw sleeping or resting on the sidewalk whatsoever," Troxell continued. Last and most contentious is the sleeping ordinance. In 1996, City Council instituted a "camping ban" that prohibited sleeping in public, only to have the law overturned in 2000. "You could not criminalize sleeping, it was a life function," he said. "Now, one of these 'enhancements' would reinsert the word sleeping [into the ordinance]."

It appears the homeless issue itself won't be snoozing any time soon, as dueling reports on homelessness are now competing for the city's attention. A Nov. 9 report from the National Coalition for the Homeless (Troxell is a board member and a source for at least some of the report's local findings) designated Austin as the 10th-"meanest" city to the homeless population – actually an improvement of two spots from 2003. The NCH report release followed just five days after the council's discussion on amending the homeless ordinance – a discussion shaped by yet another report, this one a 38-city review funded in part by the Downtown Austin Alliance, the business group that supports the new regulations.

The proposals were presented to the council by Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza as a "briefing" only, and Troxell was irked that the briefing format allows for no public comment. Accordingly, House the Homeless members appeared at the meeting wearing gags over their mouths. As Troxell sees it, the Downtown Alliance got Garza "to do their dirty work, to be their point person." For his part, Garza essentially dismissed the NCH report and its harsh judgment of city policy, telling the Statesman that the report lacks "solid factual data" and is based solely on the testimony of homeless activists like Troxell.

Thus far, council reaction to the proposed changes seems deliberative. Troxell pointed to Raul Alvarez, Jackie Goodman, and Danny Thomas as "seeming very concerned" and certain to examine all aspects of the issue before rushing to judgment. Betty Dunkerley says she's receptive to the changes but wants to proceed cautiously. "City Council, and certainly I as well, are very supportive of all the homeless issues," Dunkerley said, "but it seems to me we've gotten a bit out of balance, and we need to move back toward the center. What we're struggling with right now is how to do that, in a way that's humane and in keeping with the character of Austin." She added that there are too few resources available for Austin's homeless. "I think we still need to strive to improve some of the services for some groups of our homeless – for example, the mental health area." On Nov. 19, the Austin Area Homeless Task Force voted to adopt a Ten Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness, saying "strategies to solve the problems lie in affordable housing, access to health care including mental health and substance abuse treatment, and livable wages."

On the other hand, downtown business owners are complaining of increased problems with loiterers and panhandlers in the area around Sixth and Congress, and the popular presumption is that the opening of the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless at Seventh and Neches has drawn more transients to the area. But Troxell points out that despite the opening of the ARCH, diminishing space at SafePlace and the Salvation Army have produced a net loss of city beds for the homeless.

Expect the deliberation (and the arguments) to continue into the new year as, in Dunkerley's words, the council tries to "balance out the rights of citizens, property owners, and customers, and the rights of the homeless."

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