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As Austin gears up to possibly change ordinance, City gives state of homelessness updates

Within the memo sent Oct. 15, the assistant city manager outlined updates to homeless camp clean-ups, homeless outreach and public safety.

AUSTIN, Texas — Ahead of a meeting to potentially revise Austin's homeless ordinance, the Austin City Council has received a memo outlining additional actions city staff has taken to address homelessness.

Within the memo sent Oct. 15, the assistant city manager outlined updates to homeless camp cleanups, homeless outreach and public safety. Part of the memo provides clarification on what is allowed at homeless camps and how obstructive those homeless camps are allowed to be.

The memo spells out more of the specifics that some council members and Mayor Steve Adler have requested. The memo was released shortly before an Austin City Council work session that started Tuesday morning. 

The work session also covered a proposed ordinance that would bring back a ban on camping, sitting and lying in areas like medians, sidewalks and underpasses. 

The council discussion highlighted a sharp divide on where each policymaker stands. 

The proposed ordinance is 12 pages and includes a two-page summary to spell out all of the specifics. 

"I'm on board with things that are easy to understand – things where people don't have to carry around a long list – and so as I kind of weigh through what that's going to mean to me is, I want to make sure it's really simple to understand," council member Paige Ellis said during the work session.

Councilmembers Greg Casar and Jimmy Flannigan expressed concern over the ordinance designating specific streets where camping would not be permitted.

Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza said she couldn't support the proposed ordinance, indicating it was a step back toward criminalizing homelessness. 

Casar said there were at least eight different parts of the ordinance where he had concerns.

The co-sponsors, Ann Kitchen, Leslie Pool, Kathie Tovo and Alison Alter, took the feedback and said they would work on making revisions.

Adler also said he would come up with a shorter ordinance to be considered. On Tuesday evening, Adler shared a revised version of the ordinance.

The four co-sponsors said the council needs to act on the ordinance this week. Kitchen said even if an agreement isn't reached, a vote must be taken. Other councilmembers, as well as Adler, agreed. 

"It may be hard, it may be difficult, it may be uncomfortable and awkward, but I think the public is looking for us to stand up and make some very clear statements about where we stand on these issues," Pool said.

While other homeless resolutions are on the table at Thursday's council meeting as well, Adler said the top priority is a clarified ordinance. 

"I think the message we send if we don't pass on something on Thursday is the wrong message," Adler said. 

At one point during the work session, a shouting match broke out over the ways in which to handle homelessness.

Flannigan said the solution is not "a thousand resolutions" and Tovo fired back, asking him to not diminish the work of herself and their colleagues. 

"It's just disrespectful and I've had enough," Tovo said to Flannigan before the two continued arguing for about a minute. 

In regard to homeless camp cleanup, the Oct. 15 memo has suggested a few ideas to address the issue. The city will continue its "Violet Trash Bag" pilot program and work to distribute larger trash bags. 

The city is working with the Texas Department of Transportation to place trash receptacles at the following underpass locations, pending city council approval on Oct. 31:

  • Highway 183 and Ohlen Road 
  • Highway 290 and Cameron Road 
  • Interstate Highway 35 and Sixth Street 
  • Highway 290/71 and Packsaddle Pass area

The city staff is also working to clean significant debris twice monthly – instead of once per month – at two underpasses: the underpass at U.S. 183 and Ohlen Road and the underpass at the Packsaddle Pass area at Highway 71 and U.S. 290.

WATCH: Austin councilmembers propose homeless ordinance

Officers with the Austin Police Department now have clarification on what violations of the camping ordinance look like. Some violations and camping officers will be looking for include the following:

  • Blocking the sidewalk to a point where people must step off the sidewalk or walk over a person's belongings to get around
  • Preventing wheelchairs from getting around
  • Blocking paths in areas closed off for special events
  • Camping close to a road or in areas prone to flooding

At the work session Tuesday, Mayor Adler asked Austin Police Chief Brian Manley and the Public Health Department if the homeless ordinance has created a public health and safety crisis in the city. Manley and the department said the data does not show that. The health department said there have been areas in the city where fecal matter has been found, but it does not appear to be more apparent than before the ordinance passed.

The APD will also look out for mattresses and other upholstered furniture that is "not designed for outside use," the memo said.

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The city manager's office also stressed a focus on housing for the homeless. The city wants to focus on finding a housing solution for every homeless person that is "appropriate for their situation, from transitional housing, rent assistance, through safe, stable permanent supportive housing." 

The city manager's office also highlighted a pilot pop-up navigation center that helped point homeless people to appropriate resources. Through that program, 355 people were assisted, the city manager's office said. The city also said the pilot helped the city gather information on "what resources are most critical to people experiencing homelessness, which parts of Austin have the largest gap, and how resources can be offered in a meaningful way."

The city council is expected to discuss and vote on possible changes to the homeless ordinance at their city council meeting at City Hall on Thursday, Oct. 17. 

On Wednesday, KVUE is taking an in-depth look at the impact of homelessness on the City of Austin. It's all part of KVUE's year-long project, "Our Homeless: Struggle on the Streets." KVUE will have extensive coverage all day long starting at 4:30 a.m.

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