What Would It Mean To Decriminalize Homelessness In Austin?

Austin City Hall

“We will be judged on how we treat the most vulnerable in our community. If someone has nowhere else to sleep, they shouldn’t be charged with a crime simply for sleeping in public. If a person has no money for food or busfare, it shouldn’t be illegal for them to ask people for money. We can continue to protect public safety without just locking people up who aren’t causing any public health or safety issue.”

These are the words posted by Council Member Greg Casar on his Facebook page earlier this week.

So what exactly is he talking about?

At their next meeting (on Thursday, June 20th) Austin City Council will be discussing changes to three ordinances that deal primarily with homeless individuals.

They are:

  1. A ban on camping in public areas  – City Code Section 9-4-11
  2. A ban on sitting or lying down on public sidewalks in downtown Austin (commonly referred to as a no sit/no lie ordinance) – City Code Section 9-4-14
  3. A ban on solicitation (aka – asking for money) – City Code Section 9-4-13

The proposal (being sponsored by Council members Casar, Garza, Harper-Madison, and Renteria) is that the ordinances dealing with no sit/no lie and camping be changed (so that a person can only be punished if they’re endangering the health or public safety of themselves or someone else or if they’re intentionally impeding the use of public property)  and that the solicitation ordinance be repealed entirely.

Why?

AEN Editor-In-Chief sat down with Emily Gerrick (senior staff attorney with the Texas Fair Defense Project) to find out. You can watch the entire interview (or read our short summary of it) below.

According to Emily, one of the main problems with the ordinances as they exist now is that they “criminalize homelessness.”

Here’s what often happens, Emily says. Homeless individuals have to come downtown in order to receive services and to wait in line for a shelter bed. But sometimes, there are not enough beds available, which means that “once the beds fill up, they’re stuck downtown, they have no way to get out, and they’re in the enforcement zone where it’s illegal just to sit or lie down. And what we see happen a lot is that people will move to more dangerous areas…” People usually move to the woods and creek beds in order to avoid detection by the police says Emily.

If the proposed changes are passed, Emily says that they’d be ” focusing on peoples’ safety. It’s focusing on the behaviors that are actually inconveniencing people, instead of just targeting homeless people for existing.”

And what about the solicitation ordinance? Emily says that engaging in aggressive and threatening behaviors (while asking for money or not) is already criminal, so there’s no real reason to have this ordinance on the books as well. All it’s doing she says, is “targeting homeless people.”

The other problem with all of these ordinances, according to Emily, is that when homeless individuals get a ticket for violating them, about 90 percent will end up with a warrant for failure to pay or appear in court. “Once they have that warrant, it becomes really counterproductive because it makes it so its much harder for them to escape homelessness. We’ve had lots of clients who have been turned down for housing, turned down for jobs because they have warrants on their records…”

So what comes next?

City Council will be discussing these ordinances at its June 20th meeting. A coalition of organizations who work with homeless individuals (including the Texas Fair Defense Project, Grassroots Leadership, Texas Advocates for Justice, and the Austin Democratic Socialists of America) will be hosting a rally in support of amending/repealing the ordinances at City Hall on the same day.

The Council meeting will also likely include a good deal of debate and discussion, since several community organizations have expressed their concerns over changing the ordinances. An editorial published in the Austin American-Statesman on June 4th by representatives from the Downtown Austin Alliance, Austin Crime Commission, and the Austin Chamber of Commerce called for the city to spend more time getting community input before making any changes.

“We encourage the Austin City Council to accelerate implementation of a comprehensive plan to address homelessness, and we fully support the council’s efforts to build adequate housing and enhance services that will help people get their lives back on track,” wrote Dewitt Peart (Downtown Austin Alliance), Pete Winstead (Austin Crime Commission) and Brian Cassidy (Austin Chamber of Commerce) in the editorial. But, they continued on to comment on changing the ordinances, writing that, “We do not believe this will lead to an Austin where all people feel safe.”

UT Police Chief David Carter has also published a public letter in opposition to “removing discretionary police authority from panhandling ordinances.”

 

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