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As new homeless ordinances go into effect, Austin police provide details on enforcement

City leaders say it will take time for the new ordinance to be fully enforceable.

AUSTIN, Texas — After the Austin City Council voted on Oct. 17 to make again changes to the city ordinance regarding where those experiencing homeless can camp, sit or lie, the Austin Police Department has also had to make some changes regarding what it can and can't enforce.

It all stems from the council's decision to lift a ban on homeless camping, sitting and lying in certain public areas over the summer. However, in this month's meeting, the council decided that camping on all city sidewalks will be banned, but sitting and lying down will not – unless it is 15 feet from an operating business. Camping, sitting or lying downtown around the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH) will also now be banned within a quarter-mile of the area. That rule will eventually apply to the South Austin homeless shelter when it is built. Camping, sitting and lying will also be banned in high wildfire risk zones or if it is endangering the health or safety of the public.

Below is a list of changes the APD has made to its training bulletin as a result of the Oct. 17 vote:

  • The ordinance defines "storing personal belongings for an extended period of time" as if a person is keeping their belongings in a tent, structure or place where it is apparent that the person is not regularly moving the items
  • Using a vehicle has been removed from the section on living accommodations. This does not necessarily mean that a person can't camp in a vehicle.
  • The ARCH has been designated as a "homeless shelter" and camping outside of it is prohibited. This provision can now be enforced, provided that the individual's violation is not on the "Camping Ordinance Exemption List." This was compiled on Oct. 28 in accordance with the instructions of the city manager. This list is available to all officers.
  • Though the ordinance has declared the ARCH a shelter, the provision which states that a person cannot camp within a quarter-mile of a homeless shelter is not currently enforceable. 
  • The provision that a person cannot camp within 15 feet of a door jamb of a residence or business during its operating hours is now enforceable citywide, as long as the alleged violation is not on the "Camping Ordinance Exemption List."
  • A homeless person commits an offense after having been "notified" by law enforcement and they were given a "reasonable" opportunity to correct the offense.
  • Individuals who violate the law must immediately comply with an officer's direction to correct the violation. Officers must give the person a reasonable amount of time to comply, as in breaking down their campsite or eliminating pathway obstructions. Officers must give notice and reasonable opportunity for a correction after each new violation.

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  • New examples of "endangering" circumstances have been identified, such as the camp causes pedestrians to have to step off the sidewalk or other obstructions, involves the use of flammable materials, is in a creek bed or area prone to flash flooding, or is close enough to a roadway where there is substantial risk that a car could strike the person camping.
  • New examples of "blocking" circumstances have been identified, such as blocking the sidewalk in a manner that would prevent a person in a wheelchair or pushing a cart to pass through, fails to leave a straight path on the sidewalk, or blocks or limits access to public infrastructures like parking spaces, benches, bus stops or fire hydrants.
  • States that a person is materially endangering his or her health or that of another if they are rendering the pathway impassable. Therefore, camping on a sidewalk is prohibited.
  • Camping is not allowed in high wildfire risk areas. The Austin Fire Department has identified and mapped these areas.

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  • Unless there is an imminent threat or safety risk, the officer must make a reasonable effort to provide the person with an alternative place to camp, such as a state park or other lawful spots.
  • The officer must also advise the person of current shelter or housing availabilities
  • The officer should also contact, if reasonable and appropriate, a city designee who has the authority to offer transportation to the person. Officers should be aware of when the Homeless Outreach Street Team (HOST) operates.

The full training bulletin can be found here

The new ordinances officially took effect Monday, yet you probably won't see much of a change just yet. Before police released their updated training bulletin Monday evening, officers, city workers and volunteers were seen talking with homeless individuals around town, handing out fliers notifying them of the changes and resources. 

"We are not going to disperse these people and send them to other places in the city or underpasses or into neighborhoods, we are going to house those people," Austin Mayor Steve Adler said.

And city leaders told KVUE these changes won't happen overnight. First, the city manager has to make sure homeless individuals have had enough time to learn the rules. They must also be offered other services and non-shelter housing.

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"We are changing the ARCH and putting social workers and case managers, so that someone who goes in there gets triage and we find out what they need and develop a housing exit strategy," Adler said. "Organizations and city workers are going out and talking to the people that need our help. We don’t want people lying on the street. We want people in safer places.”

The mayor said City Manager Spencer Cronk will speak at a work session on Tuesday to provide a timeline for when the ordinance will be fully enforced.

A copy of the fliers can be found here. A copy of the new ordinance can be found here.

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