The Austin Chronicle

For Council, No Easy Next Steps After Lifting Camping Ban

Austin’s homelessness strategy turns to housing

By Austin Sanders, August 23, 2019, News

At a packed forum on homelessness organized by the Downtown Austin Alliance on Wednesday, Aug. 21, City Council Member Greg Casar referenced a quote from an Austin police lieutenant, taken from the Chronicle archives: "What were the city council's expectations after this [ordinance] was passed?" the lieutenant is quoted as asking. "But the only problem is, it's not going to work in the long run. ... [Violators] will go in court one day and come out the next." The quote is from 1996, following the original Council vote to prohibit camping, sitting, or lying in the public right of way – the same ordinance the current Council voted to loosen on June 20.

Casar read that quote to illustrate two points: 1) that law enforcement has viewed No Sit/No Lie and the camping ban from the beginning as an ineffective response to homelessness, and 2) that we have needed long-term solutions and significant financial investment for more than two decades. To that end, Mayor Steve Adler and CMs Ann Kitchen, Kathie Tovo, and Casar agreed that the next phase in Austin's homelessness strategy will be housing-focused and could include new restrictions on where people can camp in the public right of way, according to a document Adler posted to the Council message board for the community to see.

The six-page document begins with a list of principles the City Council aims to honor in addressing homelessness in Austin. "We are concerned with both people experiencing homelessness and public places," it says, reflecting the backlash Council has faced following the June 20 vote and reiterating the argument Adler has often made since: Telling people they can't camp, sit, or lie on the city's streets without providing them a safe place to be instead is bad policy that will not reduce homelessness.

But the document also acknowledges that public camping in itself is not a solution. "We do not want any of our neighbors, especially our most vulnerable, to have to live with the public safety and health risks of life on the streets," it reads. Instead, Austin should focus on providing housing of all types and preventing people from falling into homelessness in the first place. That means, mostly, large financial investments in services and capital projects – from "rapid re-housing" solutions for people who may fall victim to a "perfect storm" of circumstances leading to homelessness, to "housing first" shelters that offer the intensive case management needed to bring people out of long-term homelessness.

The document notes that the increasingly visible crisis has caused distress for some in the community – business owners, law enforcement officers, and everyday citizens disturbed by the sight of public suffering – and city leadership should "immediately consider placing restrictions" on camping in some parts of town that are "not the most safe, humane, or best places for people to be, or because they pose public safety risks or public health hazards." Those potential sites include the Drag, Sixth Street, Con­gress Avenue, and areas near schools, in floodplains, or outside of service centers, such as the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless.

At Council's work session on Tuesday, Aug. 20, Casar said that the city's next steps should address the root causes of homelessness, not just visible symptoms like public camping. "If people have issues with camping," Casar said, "then the real solution to that is housing and services." Later that day, Casar told the Chronicle that the city's strategy should "not focus on prohibiting camping," but rather "focus on preventing the need for camping in public altogether." Casar said this distinction can be felt by those experiencing homelessness. "I just want to make sure our policies are not making life more difficult for people already in a tough spot," he explained.

A staff memo published on Friday, Aug. 16, more or less put a pin in an idea floated by some CMs to identify sites for "authorized encampments" throughout the city, which brings additional urgency to the city's quest to expand its emergency and long-term shelter capacity. Citing recent research from the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the U.S. Interagency Coun­cil on Homelessness, and the U.S. Depart­ment of Housing and Urban Develop­ment that found little evidence to support the efficacy of "authorized encampments," the memo says, "The Homeless Strategy Office will respectfully not bring forth recommendations" for designated safe camping or safe parking areas.

At the DAA forum, Adler confirmed to the Chronicle that he was no longer interested in pursuing safe camping sites because "every piece of advice I've been given says we should not." The mayor said federal officials and city leaders across the country all advised against the idea: "I've learned that when you open a temporary camping site, you often don't ever close them," he told us, adding that he'd prefer to spend the funds that would go toward keeping potential campsites safe and clean on housing solutions instead.

Tovo agreed that Council should be "laser-focused" on finding funding in the community for housing, but she had not yet made up her mind on whether to pursue authorized encampments. "My staff and I are still looking into the research staff shared, but I haven't come to a decision," she told us. It appears that the majority of City Council is speaking in unison on the importance of "housing-focused" solutions, but those experiencing homelessness and their advocates will remain skeptical until results can be shown – and in the meantime, people living on the streets still need a safe place to stay.

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