A Closer Look at No Sit/No Lie

In 2009, House the Homeless, an education and advocacy nonprofit, surveyed 500 people experiencing homelessness in Austin. After analyzing the surveys, Richard Troxell, the founder of House the Homeless, discovered that nearly half had serious health conditions, including congestive heart failure, cancer, traumatic brain injuries, and mental illness, that prevented them from working. These illnesses also required long periods of rest. And it was those periods of rest that often led to fines under the city's No Sit/No Lie ordinance, which applies to certain public spaces.

However, there were no exceptions for the disabled under No Sit/No Lie, which directly violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In 2010, Troxell and Council Member Mike Martinez proposed certain exceptions to the ordinance – such as increasing the number of benches in public spaces, and allowing doctor's notes or cards displaying health conditions to provide an exemption from fines. While those ideas were rejected, House the Homeless worked to create changes that brought the ordinance into compliance under ADA and provided exemptions for those in line for goods and services during periods of extreme temperatures.

No Sit/No Lie has a history that dates back 20 years, when business owners, city officials, and the public strove to crack down on homelessness. But the ordinance has dire consequences for a population that struggles to obtain even the most basic resources. In 1995, the city passed an anti-camping ordinance, which targeted the homeless who congregated in "problem areas" including Downtown. While the ordinance was much reviled, it was also mostly unenforceable because of how vaguely "camping" was defined. It also didn't address the true problem, which was that the homeless in Austin had nowhere to sleep.

The ARCH, built in 2004, was one supposed solution, but overcrowding at the shelter left many with nowhere to go. One year later, the city passed No Sit/No Lie, an attempt at limiting the anti-camping ordinance, but also a way of addressing chronic and aggressive panhandling Downtown. West Campus and East Austin are also currently within the geographical limits of the ordinance. The ordinance gives police authority to issue fines of $160 and community service to people who are sitting or lying in public spaces. Officers must first give a 30-minute warning to those found in violation, and if the person is found in the same location after that time period, the officer can then choose to issue a citation. If fines are not paid, those found in violation will then be issued a warrant for their arrest, and the cost of the ticket increases to $210.

While anyone can be fined for violating No Sit/No Lie, the homeless are disproportionately affected, receiving two-thirds of the tickets issued. Defenders of the ordinance insist that the primary intention is to incentivize the homeless to find housing and receive services. Typically, a ticket sends a person to Municipal Court, where they are directed to service providers. For others, No Sit/No Lie and other ordinances like it embody the criminalization of homelessness in Austin.

Last Tuesday, the Texas Fair Defense Project, the Civil Rights Clinic at the UT School of Law, and the law firm of Susman Godfrey LLP filed a suit against the city of Austin for unconstitutionally jailing citizens. "With something like No Sit/No Lie, which really directly impacts homeless people, the enforcement mechanism is a Class C ticket. That's going to feed them into this process which leads a lot of people to jail," says Rebecca Bernhardt, executive director of the Texas Fair Defense Project. She hopes the lawsuit will force Austin to address how such ordinances impact the city's most impoverished. "We're focused on an injunctive release, which means we want to change the city's practices and policies when it comes to enforcing these laws. There is well-established Supreme Court case law that says you can't treat poor people differently. You can't put someone in jail solely because they don't have the ability to pay a fine or fee."

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