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Austin City Council leaving for 6 week break without plans to address voter-backed camping ban

Protesters of the camping ban have pitched their tents outside of City Hall since the ordinance was approved on May 1. (Laura Figi/Austonia)

Police can start issuing citations to homeless residents who continue camping in restricted areas on Sunday, more than a month after Austin voters approved Prop B. But Austin City Council has yet to identify places where such residents can go, legally and safely.

Members shelved discussion of the topic during virtual meetings on Monday and Tuesday, citing time constraints, and mostly rejected city staff's suggestions for potential sanctioned encampment sites last month. Meanwhile, the grounds of City Hall remain the site of a camp-in protest.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler acknowledged that the council had "danced around" the topic during a special called meeting Monday. "With Proposition B and the vote of the community I think we have an obligation to stop people from camping and tenting in public spaces, and the (city) manager's been charged with that," he said.

Tents and protesters have remained outside City Hall, but soon police will be able to issue citations for campers. (Laura Figi/Austonia)

Where we are now

City staff say they need more direction from council on how to designate such campsites and how to pay for them—and time is running out. Council breaks for a six-week summer recess next week, and Adler has signaled that he hopes to take up the land development code, arguably as contentious an issue as homelessness, on the other side.

In response to members' concerns about the proposed campsites, Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey issued a memo last week with more specific criteria, including:

  • Potential 2-year temporary use
  • At least 2 acres per 50 people
  • Access to public transportation and basic retail services
  • Low wildfire and flood risk
  • Proximity to schools

But she added that such criteria "severely limits the use of City-owned land as an option for consideration," and staff need more policy direction on how to proceed.

Grey also presented an implementation schedule, which would see:

  • Congregate shelters, such as the ARCH and Salvation Army, expand their capacity by July now that the pandemic is less acute
  • The conversion of an existing ProLodge into a bridge shelter, where people can stay temporarily while permanent housing is being arranged, and the possible lease of an additional motel property for the same purpose
  • The opening of at least one designed encampment site by July

But its implementation hinges on council providing such direction by Thursday, says city staff. There is no agenda item regarding encampments, which means council can't take formal action.

"Austinites aren't getting what they voted for; they're getting the runaround; and getting angrier and more fired up to oust all existing leadership as a result," Save Austin Now tweeted Monday.

How we got here

Austin City Council overturned the ban in 2019 after a successful campaign by advocates, who argued that it criminalized homelessness. In the wake of this decision, homelessness grew more visible, with encampments forming along Lady Bird Lake, and a series of fires stoked concerns.

Austin residents voted to reinstate the ban during the May 1 election after a successful counter-campaign spearheaded by the local political action committee Save Austin Now.

The city of Austin announced a multi-phase plan to reimplement the ban, which applies to sitting, lying and panhandling as well as camping in parts of central Austin.

Council also revisited the idea of sanctioned encampments—areas homeless can be with some amenities and without fear of arrest—which they had previously abandoned due to concerns about costs and permanency. But when staff presented 45 options last month, members pushed back.

"I'm committed to trying to find a way to make this work," District 7 Council Member Leslie Pool said during a May 18 work session, echoing many of her colleagues. "But the sites that you've designated… they just won't work."

This story has been updated at 10:30 a.m. to include confirmation by city staff that: "There is no agenda item regarding encampments, which means council can't take formal action."


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