For this week’s take on the Austin City Council meeting, we will focus only on the homeless items, as that issue has the most interest among our readers, and the proposals are wildly confusing for the public, and need sunlight. If you didn’t catch our analysis of the problem, you can read it here.
Let us try to make sense of all of this for you. For clarity’s sake, a resolution is non-binding direction to the City Manager, and an ordinance is law.
There are two competing proposals (details below). The first (Items 29, 30), from Council Members Kitchen, Tovo, Alter and Pool, is an ordinance that reinstates camping, sitting and lying prohibitions in select areas. This includes certain sidewalks, rights-of-way, medians, sloped underpasses, and around existing shelters. The resolution directs the City to do a number of things, including developing an Encampment Response Strategy.
The second proposal (details below), from the Mayor, Casar, Garza, Renteria, and Harper-Madison is only a resolution. That means, there would be no changes to the recent ordinances (laws) governing camping, sitting, and lying. But it does bear some resemblance to the creation of a comprehensive plan, which is good. The resolution highlights more than 10 things the City Manager and recently resigned Homeless Strategy Officer should do, including, development of a homeless encampment response strategy, identify (not do anything about) high risk areas for camping, sitting and lying, and identify properties for future shelters and housing.
The likely outcome will be the adoption of the Mayor/Casar resolution (which we support), with minimal, if not no changes to the ordinance, and then a robust PR effort to convince the public they did something. It’s the proverbial can kick, and from my experience seeing first-hand how things work at City Hall, is all to save face..
While the Kitchen, Tovo, Alter, Pool ordinance is preferred, it does not go far enough. Exemption for some areas is an admission to all that the current policy is having bad consequences. Further, the Mayor and Council have been on a speaking tour saying, “we can’t just keep moving people,” which is exactly what this ordinance would do. The immediate and visible negative effect that our 100% progressive Council’s rulings have had on the homeless and their increasingly vocal neighbors, the residents and businesses of Austin is now known nationwide, and these three items, including rolling back little sections and pieces of their edicts, are inconsequential.
A better strategy would be to reinstate the previous rules, encourage APD to, when possible, use non-criminal sanctions to enforce the basic public health and safety standards that Austin deserves. Then, the City could work with the community, especially homeless service providers such as Mobile Loaves & Fishes, to develop a comprehensive plan to address the homeless crisis, including the items highlighted in the Mayor/Casar resolution. Once that plan has been fully developed, they could reveal it to the public for feedback, before making dramatic changes to ordinances and building shelters in neighborhoods and near schools. That is how good public policy is drafted. Not to mention, this method would go a long way to start to restore public trust in the Council.
Tune in next week to catch our recommendations for a comprehensive plan to address the ongoing homeless crisis in Austin.
For those interested, here are some further details of the three Council agenda items above.
Item 29, the Kitchen, Tovo, Alter, Pool Ordinance would:
- Maintains existing rules on camping, sitting, lying, except;
- Adds prohibitions for culverts and storm drains, bank of creeks or rivers, accessibility ramps, high fire risk areas, high pedestrian areas (named Guadalupe around UT, 24th Street at UT, Congress between Oltorf and 11th, 2nd Street District, 5th and 6th Street between IH35 and Lamar), around the ARCH or future shelters, in a floodplain, on a traffic island or median, sloped area under a highway, in a park, on conservation and water protection lands, railroads, city library, private property, transit stops or shelters, construction zones and commercial zones.
Item 30, the Kitchen, Tovo, Alter, Pool Resolution would direct the City Manager to:
- Develop an Encampment Response Strategy, focusing first on the ARCH and Ben White encampments between Lamar and Manchaca.
- Secure either available hotels/motels, shelter beds or city-owned facility for unsheltered individuals.
- Develop an action plan, schedule, estimated costs and identify the resources necessary for implementation.
- Affirms the City’s continued enforcement of local and state laws such as use of grills, fire pits, building structures, and prohibiting drug use and public intoxication.
- Use non-criminal measures to enforce the rules when possible.
Item 32, the Mayor, Casar, Garza, Harper-Madison, Renteria Resolution would direct the City Manager to:
- Maintain existing rules on camping, sitting, lying.
- Identify high pedestrian trafficked streets, sidewalks, flood prone areas, fire and wildland areas and other areas that present public safety and health risks for camping, sitting, lying, and, curiously, riding bicycles and scooters.
- Identify camping practices, structures, and possessions that pose the greatest public safety and health risks.
- Develop a map, guide, and signage of the areas and rules that will tell the public about the rules and regulations.
- Develop a homeless encampment response strategy.
- Develop a regional plan for service coordination, data tracking, and applications for funding.
- Creation and operation of a fund for voucher holders experiencing homelessness.
- Identify design and operation criteria for future shelters.
- Recommendations for acquisition of property for shelters and housing.
- Creation of a Tourism Public Improvement District (TPID) for funding.
- Analyze other opportunities including donation receptacles, public toilets, mobile shower and laundry facilities, city provision of tents and sleeping bags.
This Week at the ATX Council
Almost every week the Austin City Council convenes, and collaborates on issues related to running the City, including everything from purchasing items to zoning cases to budget allocations to new ordinances and resolutions. On a typical meeting agenda, there are anywhere from 50 to 100 different items on which the Council will debate, take public input, and vote or postpone.
The local media often covers the more compelling issues, but typically simply acts as a megaphone for the ideologically monolithic City Council, rather than asking tough questions, investigating the effects of policy decisions, or expressing interest in the effectiveness or outcomes of the action. Policy at City Hall has become an exercise in pandering to influence groups, a wink-and-nod parlor game between friends, rarely measured for effectiveness.
Special interest groups, lobbyists, and City Hall regulars show up to say a few words, but the vast majority of the public are not tuned in to the happenings of City Hall political decisions, trusting in their elected officials and taxpayer-funded City staff to make decisions that help Austin thrive.
The Austin Civic Fund’s (ACF) exclusive new regular feature, This Week at the Austin City Council, is intended to highlight the good, the bad, and the ugly of City Hall. Consistent with its mission, ACF, will focus on identifying the most pressing issues facing the City of Austin, defining effective policy solutions, and elevate public awareness of the best solutions.