City Council loosens homelessness rules, drawing criticism from some UT students, parents

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Photo Credit: Eddie Gaspar

City Council members voted on June 20 to loosen Austin’s homelessness ordinances, prompting safety concerns from UT students and their parents.

Under the new rules, city policies prohibiting camping, lying down and sitting in public places are only enforceable if such actions present a safety issue or prevent use of public facilities. Additionally, panhandling will be prohibited only in circumstances deemed violent or aggressive.

“Now, it is no longer a criminal act to sleep in your car,” City Council member Greg Casar said during the meeting. “It is no longer a criminal act to ask for money at 7:30 at night. This ordinance is an important piece in moving from dealing with homelessness in the jails to dealing with homelessness through housing and service.”

 

Several UT students and their parents, including members of safety advocacy non-profit Safehorns, voiced concerns about the ordinances at the meeting. Opponents of the proposed changes said off-campus areas, such as West Campus and North Campus, can be dangerous for students because of the large number of homeless individuals there.

“I have significant concerns regarding the proposed changes to the camping ordinance,” business sophomore Cole Cunov said during the meeting. “Even with the current camping ordinance, there is already a great general feeling of uneasiness or anxiety around West Campus. It is important that City Manager (Spencer) Cronk carves out areas in which camping is still outlawed, especially now as we begin freshman orientations and prepare for students to come back to school.”

Cunov said he has walked multiple friends to their destinations in West Campus because they felt uncomfortable walking alone due to the homeless population.

Some community members and students, such as Lauren Cebulske, an international relations and global studies sophomore, spoke in support of the proposed changes.

“The current ordinances in Austin are not only inhumane in nature but also enforce the idea that homeless people require policing,” Cebulske said during the meeting. “They perpetuate the fallacy that any homeless person is a degenerate to society. Currently, the homeless population lives their lives criminalized in Austin.”

Before 3 a.m. on Friday, after several hours of testimony from community members, council members voted on the ordinance. The camping ordinance passed 9-2, with members Kathie Tovo, who represents West Campus, and Alison Alter voting against. Changes to the so-called “no sit/no lie” ordinance and the panhandling ordinance passed unanimously. 

“We have much work still to do in service of the goal of making homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring,” Mayor Steve Adler said in a statement. “But as Mayor, I’m committed to preserving the coalition of community partners and maintaining a focus on constructive results.”

But even though the City Council passed the ordinances, Gov. Greg Abbott said the state reserves the right to override the changes.

“If Austin — or any other Texas city — permits camping on city streets it will be yet another local ordinance the State of Texas will override,” Gov. Greg Abbott said in a tweet Sunday. “At some point cities must start putting public safety & common sense first. There are far better solutions for the homeless & citizens.”