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  • Writer's pictureMolly Becker

Heat Rises in homelessness debate as City Council eases law

By Elizabeth Findell

Posted Jun 21, 2019 at 7:32 PM

Updated Jun 22, 2019 at 2:35 PM

Alvin Sanderson, who’s homeless, took the microphone at an Austin City Council meeting to tell the story of a late friend he called Suzie. She had ventured into a tunnel, as many lacking homes do, to hide from police officers who would write them citations for public camping, Sanderson said.

And there she had been swept away in a flood.

“Suzie didn’t need to die,” Sanderson said. “She was a good person. And she certainly didn’t need to die because of a camping ordinance.”

The City Council agreed. Early Friday, its members rescinded city prohibitions on sitting or sleeping in public and panhandling — measures social advocates said wrongly criminalized homelessness — after hours of emotional testimony from deeply divided residents.

Critics of the laws said they were ineffective, cruel and only made it more difficult for people given citations to find jobs and housing. Supporters argued the ordinances were needed to help law enforcement combat aggressive behavior and said rescinding them would only make homelessness a greater public hazard.

While council members generally agreed the measures needed to be changed, they split over the change making public camping — excluding parkland — legal so long as the person isn’t causing a hazard. Council Members Alison Alter, Kathie Tovo and Ann Kitchen said they supported the move, but wanted to delay final passage until August to consider specific geographic carve-outs.

They were overruled, and final approval of the looser language passed 9-2, with Alter and Tovo opposed. The other changes, including lifting bans on sitting on sidewalks and panhandling, were approved unanimously. After concerns were raised earlier this month, Council Member Greg Casar, one of the sponsors of changing the ordinances, added language to make it clear that acting aggressively or threateningly remains illegal.

Mayor Steve Adler deemed it imperative to make big moves to begin to change how the city handles homelessness.

“We issued 18,000 tickets between 2014 and 2016, and it didn’t work,” Adler said. “This isn’t what we should be doing.”

What comes next?

Police Chief Brian Manley said at a news conference Friday afternoon that police will spend up to the next 10 days preparing to implement the changes. Department leaders will issue a training bulletin to make officers aware of the changes and will scrutinize which internal policies need to be changed.

The biggest difference from a policing perspective, Manley said, is the ordinance’s shift of priorities from activities to conduct. In other words, if police receive complaints about people camping or soliciting, they will have to prove the person is posing a hazard or aggressively confronting others.

“I think the impact will be more on persons’ perceptions of their own safety and our inability now to act in cases where someone may have erected a structure in front of a business or is sitting or lying in front of someone’s business, but not necessarily being dangerous,” Manley said.

Indeed, as the chief spoke, a man slept unmolested on the front steps of police headquarters.

Council members also unanimously passed a resolution that lays out a detailed mandate for staff members to look for solutions to homelessness. It asks staffers to consider reasonable camping limitations and consequences; give options for storage lockers citywide; create an action plan to delineate roles to respond to the issue; and to work on pilot programs, among other requests.

The votes came on the eve of a six-week summer vacation for council members. Those arguing for a delay until an August meeting regarding a change of the camping ban said they wanted city staffers to spend that time working on the resolution.

Adler, however, argued that the ordinances were keeping the city from fixing the problem of homelessness by simply moving itinerant people from place to place while providing other city residents a false sense of security. He said moving ahead with changes was the only way to keep pressure on the council to continue revising city laws as needed.

“We have to just start doing stuff,” Adler said. “I don’t believe between now and August we’re going to be confronted with a significant challenge from these ordinances being changed. If we are ... that’s going to be really good data for us to have.”

Casar called it a stain on his conscience that the ordinances hadn’t yet been changed during his four years on the council.

“There are good-hearted people who have asked us to wait on this,” he said, “but we can’t keep perpetuating injustice because we haven’t fixed everything yet.”

A community divided

The resolution and ordinance decisions, reached after 2 a.m. Friday during a meeting that started at 10 a.m. Thursday, capped a long day of intense discussion surrounding several homelessness-related votes at City Hall. Earlier, council members unanimously approved buying property for a new homeless shelter near Ben White Boulevard and Bannister Lane despite angry opposition voiced by scores of neighbors.

South Austin residents who turned out to oppose the new shelter cried in the council chambers as they recounted threatening interactions with homeless people, told stories of their children seeing inappropriate behavior, said people without homes are “terrorizing our community,” yelled intermittently at council members from the audience and railed against what they called a lack of transparency from Kitchen, their council representative.

When Kitchen defended the concept of the new shelter, which will not allow walk-in intakes, and the need to move forward on solutions, she was greeted with yells of “We don’t trust you.” The other council members and, later, some speakers, praised her for standing firmly against the opposition. Council members have said they intend to build new homeless shelters in all 10 council districts.

After dinner, during five hours of testimony and discussion regarding the ordinance changes, both those opposed to rescinding the measures and those supporting their repeal argued it was a matter of safety.

Katherine Lindsay, a downtown resident, said she had been accosted there by someone sleeping downtown and feared softening the ordinance would encourage a greater clustering of homeless populations.

Several students and parents associated with the University of Texas raised concerns about people on the streets near the campus acting aggressively. A few cited the murder of Haruka Weiser in 2016 and the guilty verdict delivered against a man who was homeless at the time of the killing.

Advocates in the audience pushed back against what they called fearmongering and discrimination. One young woman recounted a homeless man intervening to stop a nonhomeless man from assaulting her. She said speaking out against an anti-homeless narrative was her way of paying her gratitude forward.

Steven Potter, who is homeless, acknowledged the concerns of business owners about loitering and sleeping, but called the ordinances pointless.

“I don’t want to see someone strung out on K2 lying in front of Maggie Mae’s any more than anyone else, but giving someone a ticket doesn’t do anything to solve that,” he said.

Advocates in the audience cheered for speakers in support of the repeals and hissed at those who opposed them. Adler sought to encourage audience members to silently indicate support for speakers with “jazz hands” rather than applause for the sake of time. When Tovo asked audience members to please listen respectfully to differing opinions, she, too, was hissed at.

By late in the afternoon, Adler was imploring people not to demonize one another.

“One of the great advantages that we have right now, compared to cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco and Seattle, is that the conversation we’re having in this room is unlike other conversations,” he said. “We still have an opportunity to take advantage of the fact that there is a collective will to make this the highest priority and put resources against it. That doesn’t exist in other cities, because battle lines have been drawn.”

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