At times people muttered in frustration, at others people clapped. But if anything, the audience of hundreds at a forum Wednesday showed there is still a lot to talk about when it comes to how the city is handling homelessness in Austin.
In what could be seen as an attempt to allay fears that have arisen since the Austin City Council repealed an ordinance in June prohibiting camping by homeless people, several council members answered dozens of questions during a forum at the Austin Convention Center.
If there was a chief selling point, Mayor Steve Adler summed it up by telling the crowd that repealing the camping ban shows the city is changing its focus from addressing the symptoms of homelessness to treating its causes. The answer, he said, is more permanent housing for homeless people.
Reinstating the camping ban, as well as undoing the council’s decision to scale back panhandling and no sit/lie ordinances, would again result in moving homeless people from one place to another in the city without addressing the underlying issue.
“We have a chance in this city to do better,” Adler said. “I hope this city does not satisfy itself by just moving people around.”
Adler and Council Members Ann Kitchen, Greg Casar and Kathie Tovo were on the panel organized by the Downtown Austin Alliance to answer questions from the public.
The forum comes two months after the council’s vote to scale back or repeal the three ordinances related to Austin’s homeless population. Since then, the council has faced a backlash over the repeal.
Adler attempted to respond to the criticism and anecdotal evidence that the city’s homeless residents have become emboldened by the move. There is no data available showing whether the size of Austin’s homeless population has grown since the repeal.
“Be careful where you get your facts and information,” Adler said. “I’m reading all the same things that you are.”
That was not a satisfactory answer for Michael Pottorff, an owner of the Iron Cactus restaurant at Sixth and Trinity streets.
“Why are we having this meeting if it is an urban myth?” Pottorff said after the forum, noting that repealing the camping ban was “basically throwing more fuel into a fire and hoping it burns out.”
The council’s decision to scale back homeless ordinances came after a 2017 city audit found that the three ordinances in question created barriers for those trying to transition out of homelessness. Citations could lead to criminal records or arrest warrants, the audit found, and both can be obstacles to finding a home or employment.
At the same June meeting the council rescinded the homeless ordinances, it also approved creating a new homeless shelter in South Austin by buying a building just off Ben White Boulevard at Bannister Lane, which also has drawn criticism from residents living near the proposed facility.
But the furor over the camping ban repeal escalated in the days after the vote when Gov. Greg Abbott chimed in on Twitter, threatening a state intervention to undo the council’s action.
Last Friday, city staffers announced they would not pursue creating safe spaces for homeless camps after federal authorities warned it was not a responsible course of action and would become a tax on city resources.
The city’s staff also proposed banning camping in some other spaces. Though the ban was repealed, camping is still prohibited in parks, libraries, recreation centers, bus stops, City Hall and at the Capitol. The staff recommendation proposed adding areas with high pedestrian and vehicle traffic, as well as in floodways, to the ban.
Adler, Kitchen and Tovo on Tuesday released an outline that proposed similar new restrictions on homeless camping in areas adjacent to roadways, medians and transit facilities, as well as sidewalks, trails, schools, child care facilities, areas with high pedestrian activity, shelters and the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless. New restrictions likely would be up for a council vote in September.
Casar pushed back online: “I think and hope that we’re headed in the same direction, but we must be very careful not to re-criminalize the mere status of homelessness, while continuing on the path of providing more housing and services,” .
Toby Nunley, who was homeless for about six months until February, said he was able to exit homelessness, but the social services for many are not adequate. He said the council seemed singularly focused on housing and should have a more sustainable approach.
“I feel like the general population hasn’t stopped to listen or understand who the homeless are,” Nunley said. “They don’t see us as people.”
Update: This article has been corrected to include all of the Austin City Council members who co-wrote and released an outline on Tuesday.