A Testy Council Continues to Consider Homelessness

The dais agrees: Ordinances need to be revised, but they disagree on how to do so

City Council is set to vote today, Thursday, Oct. 17, on revisions to the camping, sitting, and lying ordinances that have roiled debate on the dais and in the public for months – and once again, Council members appear split on how exactly to proceed with the changes.

Kathie Tovo (Photo by John Anderson)

Up for consideration is an ordinance brought forth by CMs Kathie Tovo and Ann Kitchen, with co-sponsors Alison Alter and Leslie Pool, that was up for debate in September, when Council failed to take action at a special called meeting to tweak its approach to homelessness. The proposal would ban camping on some high-traffic roadways (parts of Guadalupe and 24th Street near the UT campus; on Congress, both Downtown and south of the river; and segments of Second, Fifth, and Sixth streets), as well as a wholesale ban on camping on sidewalks or near shelters that provide services to people experiencing homelessness.

Tovo and Kitchen will also bring to the meeting today a resolution directing city staff to take a number of actions intended to support the ordinance changes, including an "encampment response strategy" to provide guidance for city departments on how to address public health and safety issues at encampments throughout the city, beginning with those around the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (Down­town, in Tovo's District 9) and along Ben White Boulevard between Manchaca and Lamar (in Kitchen's D5 and near the city's proposed new South Austin shelter).

Everyone on Council agrees the ordinances need to be revised, but they disagree on how to do so. At a contentious work session on Tuesday, Oct. 15, CMs Greg Casar and Delia Garza said they could not support Tovo and Kitchen's ordinance because it was too much of a step backward from the progress Council made in June by decriminalizing behaviors unavoidable for those without homes. "I think there was a clear message in Septem­ber that we weren't supporting something more restrictive," Garza told her colleagues. "Maybe there's need for clarity, but I think what's before us now goes a little too far."

Others on Council disagree with Kitchen and Tovo's repeated attempts to issue more direction to staff, fearing that this constricts staff's ability to pursue the most effective strategies to reduce and, over time, end homelessness in Austin. This tension over what they see as attempts at micromanagement has mostly simmered beneath the surface of the debate around homelessness policy, with some steam escaping in public remarks and Chronicle interviews. But at Tuesday's work session, that tension finally erupted into a shouting match between Tovo and CM Jimmy Flannigan.

Jimmy Flannigan (Photo by John Anderson)

It began with Flannigan once again offering pointed criticism of his colleagues – mostly directed at Tovo – over the effectiveness of their resolutions at solving city problems. He told a story about him and his staff working to connect a D6 resident with services in the Veterans Services Office – his point being that it didn't require passage of a resolution to do that, and that relying on staff to do this kind of work is how the problem would be solved. "It's not going to happen because of grandstanding. It's not going to happen because we've incited fear in our community. It's not going to happen because we passed a thousand resolutions. It's going to happen because we helped people."

Tovo responded with clear frustration at Flannigan's repeated criticism: "I find it – the way in which you continue to seem to need to diminish the work of your colleagues is just unacceptable." She proceeded to defend her approach before adding, "But please don't diminish the work several of us and many of you have supported on this Council. It's just disrespectful and I've had enough." That prompted Flannigan to shout over Tovo, "I will continue to diminish your work," saying he's aware of the many initiatives Council has kicked off via resolution, calling out one in particular – the installation of public restrooms Downtown – that has yet to come to fruition. (The project began as a pilot in 2016 and was set to become permanent with five locations this year, but in September, staff reported that manufacturer delays would prevent installation until January at the earliest.)

Before those fireworks began, staff did provide an important update on homelessness to Council, indirectly rebutting misinformation being spread by Gov. Greg Abbott. Mayor Steve Adler asked several key city staffers: "Are we facing a crisis?" Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden flatly responded: "We do not have a public health crisis." As to Abbott's false claims about Austin being littered with feces and needles, Hayden said, "Overall, in comparison, we're not really seeing more of it than we did before. There's just specific hot spots that are the same hot spots," that existed before Council voted in June.

Similarly, Police Chief Brian Manley said he has not seen any data indicating that violent or property crime has increased as a result of loosening the camping, sitting, and lying ordinances. Manley described the problem as one with "public order" and "people's sense of their own safety," rather than any real increased risk. Manley said APD is compiling data to look for any links between year-over-year crime rates and the increased public presence of people experiencing homelessness, but thus far no connection has been found.

There are a few other items we'll be watching, including: housing bond dollars to buy and preserve affordable apartments at 9125 North Plaza; financial support of a partnership with Travis County to provide "advocacy services for victims and survivors of sexual assault"; and the creation of a Rainey Street District fund. As we went to press, the enormous and controversial zoning case at 4700 Riverside was set for final approval on third reading, but could face yet another delay.

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Austin City Council, Austin Police Department, Austin Public Health, University of Texas, Travis County, Kathie Tovo, Leslie Pool, Ann Kitchen, Alison Alter, Jimmy Flannigan, Greg Casar, Delia Garza, Stephanie Hayden, Brian Manley, homelessness, no sit, no lie, camping ban

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