Austin City Council: Homeless camps OK on your sidewalk, not on theirs.


Weird is one thing; insane is another.

In the last five years, Austin TX has seen the second largest increase in home values in the state. From December 2013 to December 2018, the median home price jumped 33 per cent, from $226,000 to $301,391. Thanks to the Austin City Council, those increases are likely to come to a screeching halt.

Why? Besides the music on Sixth Street, and not having to fly to SXSW, what do you really get for your $300,000? You get to pay $5,946 every year in property tax. Money that your city and county are supposed to use to keep your neighborhood clean and safe.

Because of a new ordinance that became effective on July 1, you also get to have a homeless camp on your sidewalk, complete with mattresses, tents, and shopping carts. And you can’t do a thing about it.

Early in the morning of June 21, after a contentious city council meeting that began the evening before, the Austin City Council voted 9-2 to allow homeless people to camp on sidewalks, alleyways, and other public places. Except city parks and City Hall. Newly legal spaces include public sidewalks in front of private businesses and private homes, provided the people camping are not making the sidewalk “unreasonably inconvenient or hazardous”. The updated ordinances also loosen the restriction on panhandling, as long as the person with his hand or cup pointed in your direction is “not aggressive.”

At a recent press conference, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley said the revised ordinances would “fundamentally change” how his officers enforced the rules. “Officers cannot force people to move unless they are posing an immediate threat,” he explained.  But what exactly is an immediate threat? If you think a homeless person lying on the sidewalk where your kids want to ride their bikes is a threat, that’s just your opinion. Austin police officers can not cite an individual based on “another person’s perception of their own safety,” Manley said. “No longer will someone’s perceived sense of their safety being impacted be enough; we will have to go and establish a condition that we can demonstrate was hazardous or dangerous.” (Italics mine.)

Unless of course, that same homeless person is naive enough to camp in front of city hall, a greenbelt or public park. Then they get a visit from officers wearing latex gloves. Isn’t this blatantly hypocritical? Mayor Steve Adler says no. The city still remembers the Occupy protests that left a squalid mess in front of city hall back in 2012. So he said the current ban on City Hall camping should not be immediately rescinded. He said it “should be reviewed as staffers seek to identify, by August, the places where people should and shouldn’t be allowed to camp in Austin.”

So far, Ken Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association, is the only Austin official talking sense. “You’re seeing people camp and throw down mattresses in places they never have before,” he said. The language in the ordinance says officers can only ask homeless campers to move if they’re causing safety hazards or are making public spaces impassable. What exactly does that mean? Casaday explained that despite training, officers still don’t know what to do. “It’s left just pure speculation by the officer,” he said. “So you might have one officer that goes out there and looks at it and goes, ‘there’s nothing wrong here.’ And then you might have another officer that goes out and says, ‘well, this is a hazard to the community’.”

“I’m sure if you looked since the ordinances were changed, you probably won’t find one citation,” Casaday said. “The officers, we’ve told them just to withdraw from the situation, tell the citizens they need to contact the city council and city management.”

Perfect. Just what every city needs. Police who shrug and walk away.

Most importantly, Casaday worries about the health hazards that are brewing in other homeless camps, like Los Angeles, and what that could mean for officers. “There’s diseases that are out there, like Typhus, MRSA,” he said. “We’re looking to the health department to provide guidance on what immunizations if other needed our officers need to stay healthy.” He also wants to find ways for their department to be able to sanitize officers’ equipment in the field.

While he’s at it, he should look for a way to sanitize Austin City Hall.

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