An Update on Austin’s Homelessness Challenge
There is very constructive, overwhelming community consensus on the urgency of the need to address homelessness in our city. Homelessness advocates, law enforcement officials, local businesses, neighborhoods and city residents are all ready to work toward solutions to all three of the distinct kinds of challenges that homelessness presents, beyond assisting those that need our help:
- Public Safety threats include things like aggressive panhandling, aggressive approaching, touching, threatening, intimidating, blocking, impeding, and trespassing on someone’s private property.
- Public Health hazards include things like exposure to unsanitary conditions, drug paraphernalia and human waste.
- Unhoused Living challenges arise when we are exposed to and directly presented with disruptive mental health or physical conditions that do not constitute public safety threats or public health hazards but nonetheless are difficult or upsetting to confront.
This Thursday, Austin City Council will consider three matters that seek to address these three issues.
The first is a proposed ordinance that maintains all the tools the police department currently has to address any threat to public safety or public health hazard, without criminalizing non-threatening unhoused living challenges. The new ordinance removes the allowance of arresting or ticketing someone who — in an officer’s opinion and judgment — is neither threatening public safety nor presenting a public health hazard. This change will be applied to three provisions of city code:
- City Code, Section 9-4-11, “Camping in Public Area Prohibited”.
- City Code, Section 9-4-14, “Sitting or Lying Down…in the Downtown…”
- City Code, Section 9-4-13, “Solicitation Prohibited” (will be expanded to all non-solicitation, aggressive confrontations)
These proposed changes to city code maintain APD’s ability to deal with threats to public safety and public health hazards, but no longer make it a crime to sit, lie, camp, or solicit in a manner that is not posing such threats or hazards. It is worth noting that city code on solicitation is actually broadened, under this measure, to include any “aggressive confrontation,” whether or not solicitation is involved.
The second matter Council will consider on the subject of homelessness is a proposed resolution which asks the City Manager to give the Council and community better options than now exist to deal with the non-threatening, unhoused living challenges. These could include steps such as identifying places where camping would and would not be allowed and providing a safer place for families that are currently sleeping in their cars along our streets and moving toward more housing (shelters and permanent).
The third anticipated Council action this week will be taking a real step forward by locating a shelter which could provide an additional safe place where people experiencing homelessness can be referred for individual assessment and services to address their particular challenges on the way to more permanent housing. More such capacity will be required, but this is an important next step.
If these measures pass, police will have the tools they need to deal with the health and safety concerns sometimes associated with some of those experiencing homelessness. Additionally, the city will be moving toward more effectively dealing with the non-threatening, unhoused living challenges in our community by providing real solutions rather than the ineffective, inefficient, and morally tenuous criminalization of an already difficult life situation.
The backdrop for all of these updates is the work Council is doing in addition to the items on this week’s agenda. Other efforts to address homelessness include re-scoping the ARCH downtown, moving $8 million of federal funding toward supportive homelessness housing and expanding the convention center to create a $4 million to $10 million dedicated annual funding stream.
We have much work still to do in service of the goal of making homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring. But as Mayor, I’m committed to preserving the coalition of community partners and maintaining a focus on constructive results.