City Still Seeking Next Steps on Camping Policy and Homelessness
Council to flesh out next steps in coming weeks
On Friday, Aug. 30, city staff released its third and final memo offering recommendations to Council on how to move forward with Austin's strategy to end homelessness. The four-page memo responds to Council's request that staff investigate potential sites where public camping, sitting, or lying could be restricted or outright prohibited; it identifies potential "non-criminal remedies" the city could deploy to address such behaviors without involving the police.
The memo does not identify specific streets or intersections where camping could be limited; instead, it suggests Council look at "high pedestrian traffic areas, high vehicular traffic areas," and "high flood risk areas" as it considers public camping restrictions. Staff directs Council's attention to the rules established in May for scooters: "In the same manner that parking micro-mobility devices can obstruct pedestrian traffic," the memo reads, "the objects belonging to individuals experiencing homelessness could also obstruct pedestrian traffic." The memo also highlights a policy out of Berkeley, Calif., that places restrictions on structures erected in the public right of way as a model for addressing the tents and cardboard shelters that have become more prevalent since Austin's camping restrictions were eased on July 1.
Even in its current form, the camping ordinance already prohibits people or structures from obstructing the right of way, and at a Friday afternoon press conference following the memo's release, Mayor Steve Adler told reporters, "It would have been nice to have some greater specificity" from staff. He said Council will flesh out next steps in coming weeks, ahead of their first post-budget meeting on Sept. 19, when he expects some action to be taken. Adler also reiterated that ticketing or arresting people with nowhere else to go was not the way out of the problem, calling each instance "a loss for our city."
Instead, he urged Austinites to be "tolerant of the whole spectrum" of homelessness by providing different types of housing for people in different situations: from low-barrier shelters for people who just need a bed for the night or a place to store their belongings, upward to permanent supportive housing that helps people address the underlying issues that result in long-term homelessness. However, until the city can provide those options for those who need them, some council members are interested in acting on the staff recommendation to limit camping in some areas. CMs Ann Kitchen and Kathie Tovo are working on a proposal they intend to bring to Council on Sept. 19 that would restrict camping in areas that pose a health or safety risk – such as along creeks or riverbeds or on traffic islands and medians near busy roadways. Tovo told the Chronicle that her initial thinking about banning camping on some streets has shifted, and she is unsure of the best approach to making life on the streets safer. "We have to consider what to do with parts of Guadalupe and Congress," she told us, "which have lots of pedestrian and vehicular traffic. A targeted approach identifying parts of those streets might work best."
Regarding enforcement of existing laws against people experiencing homelessness, the memo suggests "non-criminal" approaches such as those used by the Downtown Austin Community Court (DACC) and the Homeless Outreach Street Team (HOST), rather than bringing criminal charges (at no small cost to the city) that often make it more difficult for people to exit homelessness. When "vulnerable defendants" are sent to the DACC for offenses, says the memo, the first step is to address the "quality of life" circumstances in the individual's life that may have contributed to the offense and to respond with deferred prosecutions, negotiated dispositions, or expunctions. Meanwhile, the multiagency HOST acts as the vanguard that can help people living on the streets connect to services before they interact with the criminal justice system. CM Greg Casar told the Chronicle Tuesday that both options would be critical in not only helping to lift people out of chronic homelessness, but also in helping save the city money. "We spend so much money responding to 911 calls," he said. "We need to do more to prevent those situations in the first place by getting people the services and housing they need so we don't wind up spending money on jail and hospital beds."