Starting this month, the City of Austin has rescinded the previous prohibitions on the city’s homeless residing on most of its public property. After testimony last week, the city council voted to permit homeless camping citywide.
The ordinance changes the current code to allow camping on public grounds so long as individuals are not “materially endangering the health or safety of another person or of themselves” or “intentionally or knowingly impeding the use of public property making usage of such property unreasonably inconvenient.”
A city-sponsored audit concluded, “City ordinances that limit or ban camping, sitting or lying down in public spaces, and panhandling may create barriers for people as they attempt to exit homelessness because they can lead to a criminal record or arrest warrants.”
The audit also cited fear of legal challenge as a reason to do away with the ordinance.
A 2017 court decision in Houston mandated the city halt enforcement of homelessness laws because shelters were at capacity — citing the 8th Amendment and the individual’s right to “be free from cruel and unusual punishment.”
Austin Mayor Steve Adler said of the decision, “Austin remains laser-focused on public safety and health. Last Thursday, we preserved all law enforcement tools to act on public safety threats and public health hazards.”
“The answer is not to arrest them,” Adler said of homeless individuals who do not present safety threats. He continued, “Making a crime of merely being in distress is both ineffective and inconsistent with the character of this city.”
Instead of enforcement of the law, Adler pointed to a different way of solving the problem, saying, “We need places where homeless folks can be safe and surrounded by social workers and others getting them the help and support they need.”
Over the last year, Austin homelessness has increased five percent.
Opponents of the move fear it will result in homeless individuals camping outside of businesses and other places, driving away foot traffic.
This morning, KVUE News tweeted out a photo of a makeshift shelter outside of a Discount Tire.
One public area that is excluded from the ordinance: city hall.
Governor Abbott tweeted his displeasure of the idea on June 23, saying at the time that if it passes, “It will be yet another local ordinance the State of Texas will override.”
This decision comes at a time when cities like Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco are wrought with problems exacerbated by rank homelessness such as human feces peppering the streets and the resurfacing of old diseases like typhus.
With or without the law, homelessness remains — and will continue to remain — a severe problem, especially among big cities with a high cost-of-living.
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.