Changes to the way the City of Austin and its police department will handle homeless people go into effect Monday after the city passed an ordinance largely decriminalizing the act of sitting, laying or camping in public places.
Proponents of the rule change have argued that this will help homeless people break the cycle of homelessness. A city audit report in November of 2017 found that Austin’s policies limiting camping, sitting, or lying in public spaces may make it more difficult for people to leave homelessness because of a criminal record or arrest warrants. The report also suggested that Austin’s current ordinances pose legal risks because of lawsuits faced by other cities with similar policies.
David Johnson with Grassroots Leadership said if a homeless person is cited for sleeping in a public place, “you have warrants, you’re arrested, then you lose your belongings because you don’t have a place to store them. Then it creates a cycle where you return to the streets.”
In June, Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition explained that these citations related to the camping/ sit-lie ordinance were actively prevention homeless individuals they worked with from getting into housing.
Public input over this ordinance has been tense and heated, at the June 20 council meeting, so many people signed up to speak — both for and against the changes– that the council didn’t get to vote on the changes until 2 a.m.
The email laid out new guidelines for police officers responding to calls related to homeless people in the city.
Under the changes, APD can only arrest or ticket someone who is soliciting, camping, sitting, or lying in a public area if they present a public health or safety hazard or are blocking a walkway. The changes also make all aggressive confrontations offenses under city code, whether they are panhandling or not.
Camping on private property or in city parks is still not allowed, but camping in public spaces will be allowed.