Beside the Point: Get Off Your Butt

Council can help the homeless big-time, and next week

Beside the Point: Get Off Your Butt
Photo by Jana Birchum

Last week's News feature "Tell It to the Judge" chronicled the behind-the-scenes work City Council's Judicial Committee did to establish a concrete and fair process for appointing judges to the city's Municipal Court. Those judges, by overseeing misdemeanor cases and in their work as magistrates for the county, wield enormous power over Austinites, particularly the indigent. And for a long time there was no real process for removing them from the bench. Now there's at least a way for Council to know objectively which judges should not be reappointed to their positions at the end of each four-year term. Credit to Council for taking a major step toward a culture shift at a court that hears upwards of 300,000 cases every year.

But there remains a ways to go in reforming that corner of our local justice system. Last November, the Office of the City Auditor released a report noting that the city still has ordinances on the books that ban panhandling, camping, and even sitting or lying down in parts of Downtown, provisions that criminalize the experience of living homeless, and prevent those who are from getting back on their feet. Not only do the measures present a barrier to housing, the report found that they also don't represent an efficient method of getting people connected to case management and rehabilitation services. The ordinances are also costly and vulnerable to court challenges. (And that's saying nothing of the strain that policing those ordinances puts on Downtown law enforcement.)

The auditor recommended that the city attorney and city manager evaluate the ordinances and report back to Council by April 6 – but that never happened. If Council isn't prepared to fully repeal the ordinance, the OCA suggests implementing certain changes to the ordinances to make them more likely to accomplish their intended goal.

On April 3, in advance of that initial recommended deadline, a coalition of advocates including the Texas Fair Defense Project and Grassroots Leadership held a press conference to request that Council commit to a full repeal – and it was there that Grassroots organizer Chris Harris announced that the city had punted on the OCA's recommended deadline. The city has a team working to assess its overall effort to address the issue, but the coalition would rather not wait. "We call on our city today to repeal these ordinances," Harris said, "and stop the criminalization of homelessness."

No Update … Yet

Staff may not have met the city auditor's suggested deadline, but Council is apparently still poised to take the issue up: A broad overview on the city's efforts to combat homelessness, including an analysis of No Sit/No Lie, is scheduled for hearing at the Council meeting on Thursday, April 26. Council will also consider an item endorsing the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition's Action Plan to End Homeless­ness and asking the city manager to coordinate with the group to keep members updated. The plan calls for additional outreach and shelter services, housing and supportive services, a strengthened response system, and a partnership between the public and private sectors.

Coalition member Roni Chelben, who works with the Gathering Ground Theatre, a theatre troupe of people experiencing homelessness, told me that the missed deadline made the coalition fear Council is backing away from the issue. "It's a matter of pressure," she said. "Nobody's interested in doing anything about it, because it's a complicated issue." She questioned why the city would wait for a holistic look at the city's efforts on homelessness before taking action to remove ordinances that are having a demonstrable effect on people's ability to survive right now.

Finish the Job

Council talks a big game on homelessness, in particular by celebrating the city's effort to eliminate the problem as it pertains to our veteran population, and in efforts to do the same for youth. That's why it's so important for the current dais to follow through on the auditor's report, and fully repeal No Sit/No Lie, in addition to the other ordinances that concern camping and panhandling. It's not about being sued; it's just the right thing to do. Austin can't be a nationwide example for ending homelessness while simultaneously keeping archaic rules on the books that keep the very people they purport to try to help from getting what they need.

The coalition of groups working toward the eradication of the ordinances has an ally on the dais in Greg Casar, who serves on the Judicial Committee that overhauled the Municipal Court process. Casar was there on April 3, and there he reminded: "These ordinances do not make people safe; they make us less safe. And they are certainly not fair." This week, Casar said that if the city manager doesn't put an item about the ordinances on the Council agenda, he'll sponsor one himself. He'd still need three co-sponsors and six votes, a heavy lift for a measure widely supported by the business community. But he said that's why it's so important that people keep showing up. "The activists have a right to be nervous" about inaction, he said, but that shouldn't discourage them from continuing to urge Council to act.

“Point Austin” is still at lunch.

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City Council, Greg Casar, Chris Harris, homeless ordinances, No Sit / No Lie

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