Opinion: We need more time to talk before acting on homeless laws

By Dewitt Peart, Pete Winstead and Brian Cassidy – Special to the American-Statesman

Updated: 5:07 p.m. Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Austin is normally a civically engaged city. Lengthy, meaningful and inclusive opportunities for community input routinely occur before votes of the City Council.

So, what we face this month is definitely not normal. The City Council is poised to make important public policy decisions on June 20 with very abbreviated community engagement.

The City Council had planned Thursday to consider repealing the city’s panhandling ordinance and narrowing its camping and “no sit/lie in public spaces” ordinances. But the council moved Tuesday to delay that vote for two weeks to allow for community input. We remain concerned that this is not enough time for adequate consideration.

Rescinding and narrowing these ordinances would substantially weaken our community’s ability to regulate behavior that impedes public health and safety.

We encourage the Austin City Council to accelerate implementation of a comprehensive plan to address homelessness, and we fully support the council’s efforts to build adequate housing and enhance services that will help people get their lives back on track. We are particularly hopeful that item 49 on Thursday’s council agenda, calling for a housing-focused shelter project, passes. But Austin still will not have enough shelter beds, health and psychological support services are not at scale, and an “exit strategy” that gets people from shelters back into productive lives has not been adequately implemented.

No one should be punished for sitting or lying on our streets when they have nowhere else to go, and we should not use these ordinances to punish those who suffer homelessness in our community. However, the goal of these ordinances is not to harm the homeless, but to target anyone’s behavior that is a serious impediment to public health and safety and the public’s enjoyment of our public spaces.

The ordinances give the Austin Police Department tools to protect the general public. More than 95% of the encounters APD has with people violating the current laws result in simple warnings and cooperation with the request to stop the behavior. Citations for these offenses do not appear on a person’s criminal record or prevent them from becoming housed.

Aggressive panhandling, illegal camping, and people sitting and lying on public sidewalks is getting worse across Austin. APD reports that many aggressive panhandlers are not people who are homeless. There are countless stories about visitors who say they’ll never return to Austin and about downtown residents and workers who have been frighteningly accosted by a panhandler.

Sadly, the population of unsheltered homeless is also exploding—up 63% across the city in five years, according to figures from the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition. These are people living on our streets, under bridges and in our parks and green spaces.

If the ordinances are repealed and narrowed, it will no longer be a violation to sleep or camp anywhere in public, or for a person to curse, scream or touch you, block your passage or follow you while asking for money. We do not believe this will lead to an Austin where all people feel safe. Like other cities where these ordinances have been removed, we will quickly see an erosion of public safety and an increase in life-threatening health concerns for the homeless and broader community.

Austin is at a crossroads in its approach to homelessness. We have the chance now to work together to make our city better for everyone—especially the homeless.

Let the Austin City Council know that community input on this matter should be heard, even if it takes longer than the two weeks currently on the schedule. Tell them you support item 49 as a solid start. Significant and meaningful community involvement before any decisions are made is what Austin is all about.

Peart is president and CEO of the Downtown Austin Alliance; Winstead is the president of the Central Texas Public Safety Commission and Cassidy is the chair of the Austin Chamber of Commerce.