Changes Proposed for Austin's Homeless Ordinance

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Changes Proposed for Austin's Homeless Ordinance

Amid a firestorm of controvery surrounding the recent changes to Austin's homeless ordinance regarding camping in public, the Austin City Council has been unmoved, saying on more than one occasion that it stands by its decision to allow people to camp in most public spaces.  But, in a recent memo from the Austin Homeless Strategy Office, some changes have been proposed that may impose a few regulations on the growing number of campsites.

Currently, Austin's ordinance allows for tents or other campsites to be erected in public spaces, excluding certain areas like parks or in front of City Hall.  Since July 1, when the ordinance change took effect, many residents have noted -- and spoken out against -- a very visible increase in the number of those campsites.  As long as those camps aren't causing a total blockage of a sidewalk or other walkway, there is very little Austin police can to do make them move.  The memo's recommendations may address that issue to some degree by imposing a restriction on camping in public spaces that experience high volumes of both pedestrian and vehicle traffic.  The limitations may also address the length of time a person may remain at any given campsite.

What the memo does not endorse, however, is a recommendation from members of the public calling on the city to designate certain parts of town as emergency campsites.  The Homeless Strategy Office says doing so would run counter to the Austin City Council's long-term housing plan, which also involves connecting people with case management and social service options.

The memo indicates that these recommendations are a direct result of input from recent town hall meetings, including one hosted by the Downtown Austin Alliance.  During both that meeting, as well as another public forum on the upcoming South Austin homeless shelter, Mayor Steve Adler and the city council were noticably absent.  At the DAA's forum held in July, only council member Kathie Tovo was in attendance, while a few other council members sent representatives.  No council member was in attendance at the South Austin shelter forum.  

On Wednesday, August 21, the Downtown Austin Alliance will host a second public town hall event, and Mayor Steve Adler says he will attend that one.  He will also be accompanied by council members Kathie Tovo, Ann Kitchen, and Greg Casar.

It's expected that the council will discuss the recommendations from the Homeless Strategy Office before the end of August.  The hiring of Austin's new Homeless Strategy Officer, also dubbed informally as the "Homeless Czar," was recently announced to the public.  Lori Pampilo Harris assumed the role after performing similar duties in Orlando, Florida.  She was offered a $155,000 annual salary to act as the point person for all of Austin's homeless issues.

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