After initially delaying the vote to allow the council members more time to mull it over, the city council reinstated the camping and lying ban on sidewalks and near the ARCH homeless center late last night. It was a seven to four vote with Councilmembers Alter, Kitchen, Pool, and Tovo all voting against — saying the measure was not enough.
The ordinance change that has resulted in such turmoil was instituted on July 1.
Since then, a plethora of meeting halls have been packed to the brim with citizens concerned about the decision’s ramifications. Homeless individuals have been filmed defecating and masturbating in public, been pictured exposing themselves, and even caught assaulting passersby.
Businesses have been barraged with problems stemming from those camping outside their doors — one downtown even contemplated changing its hours of operation out of fear for its employee’s safety after dark.
If the ordinance change did not exacerbate Austin’s homeless problem, it at least fully revealed it.
Ever since the town and it’s elected officials have been quite divided on where to go from here. Even rifts among the council itself metastasized. At a work session meeting on October 15, Councilwoman Kathie Tovo and Councilman Jimmy Flannigan came to rhetorical blows with one another.
The new ordinance bans camping on sidewalks, permits sitting and lying on sidewalks except within 15 feet from a business’ entrance during its hours of operation, and bans sitting and lying by the ARCH shelter.
Mayor Steve Adler said to press this afternoon, “Homelessness is a significant challenge in our city and has been for years, but it’s more visible and apparent now to many people.”
“What we did yesterday was consistent with what we said we’d do, and did, in June — and what we did yesterday wasn’t anything that the city manager and police chief couldn’t have already done,” he stated about the council’s move last night.
Moving forward, Adler said, “I am encouraged now that we have a community that is engaged and I think we are now on a path to end homelessness.”
In testimony to the body, Austin police chief Bryan Manley told the council, “We don’t have a public crisis, but we have a problem with public order.” He then asked council to ban camping and lying on public sidewalks and walkways.
“On the whole, we are seeing a decrease in violent crime, but in places like downtown, there has been an increase,” he concluded.
A question and answer document published ahead of the meeting highlighted statistics in the downtown area from APD showing a 14 percent increase in “Part I Violent” crime from July through September of this year compared to the same time frame last year. Similarly, “Part I Property” crime increased 7.5 percent from the same time frames.
An amendment offered by Councilwoman Kitchen, which would have banned camping underneath overpasses, failed in a four to seven vote.
The city also postponed indefinitely a trio of resolutions related to the homelessness problem. One would have directed the city manager to implement an “Encampment Response Strategy” addressing public health and safety issues.
Another would have directed the city manager to find unused hotel and motel space to house homeless individuals.
Matt Mackowiak, Travis County GOP chair and circulator of the petition (which has over 35,000 signatures) asking the council to fully rescind their July 1 ordinance, told The Texan, “The changes to the homeless camping ordinance were minor and will make almost no difference whatsoever.”
He added, “The Austin police chief has joined tens of thousands of Austinites in asking for the City Council to reinstate the homeless camping ban, but the Mayor and the City Council cannot admit they made a mistake.”
“The Governor will act on Nov. 1 to protect Austin residents because the City Council won’t,” Mackowiak concluded.
Earlier this month, Governor Abbott threatened to step in if the city did not demonstrate improvement by November 1.
The city now hopes the added clarity and restrictions will help APD improve public health and safety.
Update: This piece has been updated with comments from Mayor Adler.
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Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad watching and quoting Monty Python productions.