Unconstitutional? Austin ordinance that criminalizes people experiencing homelessness goes on trial Friday

October 11, 2018

Advocates and community members will pack the Austin Municipal courtroom in support of Gary Bowens, a man repeatedly criminalized under a “no camping” ordinance

New research from Grassroots Leadership and Gathering Ground Theater shows there are many people like Gary who are experiencing homelessness and repeatedly ticketed by police, resulting in unhealthy, unsustainable situations

WHAT: Press conference and municipal Hearing for Gary Bowens
WHO: Grassroots Leadership, Gathering Ground Theatre, Texas Fair Defense Project, Texas Appleseed, Austin Interfaith, Austin DSA
WHEN:   Friday, October 12. Press conference at 8:30 a.m. and hearing at 9 a.m.
WHERE: Austin Municipal Court, 700 East 7th Street, Court 2A

AUSTIN — Gary Bowens has been repeatedly ticketed for having no place to go. Like many people in Austin experiencing homelessness, Gary is subject to regular police enforcement of the local “No Camping” ordinance, which criminalizes people for storing personal belongings in public areas, sleeping in a vehicle, or otherwise appearing to be living in public.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently found in Martin v. City of Boise that a similar law in Boise, ID, was in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s 8th amendment prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment because, “It imposes criminal sanctions against homeless individuals for sleeping outdoors, on public property, when no alternative shelter is available to them...”

A new report by Gathering Ground Theater and Grassroots Leadership shows how widespread the problem is in Austin. Unfortunately, Gary’s story is not unique. Among other findings, this new research shows that people experiencing homelessness in downtown experience a high level of criminalization. From the report:

The individuals we surveyed were issued an average of 5.7 tickets under the ordinances that criminalize homelessness over the course of the year preceding the date of the survey. The results demonstrate high levels of police harassment and avoidance of police among folks experiencing homelessness. Folks reported walking for hours and going without rest to avoid ticketing and arrest for sitting or lying. Furthermore, the vast majority of individuals who interacted with police due to these ordinances were not connected to social services or housing assistance as a result of ticketing and arrest.

The full report is available here.

According to Cate Graziani, criminal justice campaigns coordinator with Grassroots Leadership and co-author of the report, “The City Auditor warned the City of Austin about potential constitutional issues with the local ordinances that criminalize homelessness last November. That same report cited how ineffective the criminal justice system is at directing people to services and housing, and how counterproductive criminalization is for people that need work and a roof over their head. The City had a chance to act and fix the mistakes of previous councils but didn’t take it, so now we hope that the courts will step in and right this glaring injustice in our city.”

On Friday, October 12 at 9 a.m. the Austin Municipal Court will be hearing a constitutional challenge to the local “No Camping” ordinance and could deliver a momentous victory to Austin’s homeless population, ending criminalization for simply having nowhere else to go. The Homes Not Handcuffs coalition will be holding a press conference before the hearing at 8:30 a.m. in front of the courthouse.  

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Grassroots Leadership is an Austin, Texas-based national organization that works for a more just society where prison profiteering, mass incarceration, deportation, and criminalization are things of the past. Follow us @Grassroots_News.


Chris Harris, charris@grassrootsleadership.org, 512-499-8111