AUSTIN, TX — The Austin City Council voted early Friday morning in favor of Item 185, ending the criminalization for some unavoidable behaviors associated with extreme poverty and homelessness.
The measure modifies Austin’s ordinances criminalizing sitting and lying down and camping unless the activity endangers the health and safety of the individual or the public.
The ordinance changes the language in the city’s ban on aggressive panhandling to apply to all “aggressive confrontations.” Advocates warned that this language has the potential to continue or even expand the criminalization of people experiencing homelessness, particularly people of color. They have vowed to continue monitoring the policy to see its impact on communities.
Prior to the campaign, Alvin Sanderson—a member of the Homes Not Handcuffs coalition and an Austin resident experiencing homelessness—shared how the previous anti-homeless ordinances endangered his life. “Every day, I have to hunt for a place to sleep,” he said. “Police officers told me to hide, so I hid. One night, at about 1:30 AM, a wall of water came through, and everything washed away. I lost everything that I owned. I was scared, I thought I was dying [...] I almost died behind the no sit / no lie, no camping and no panhandling ordinances of this city. And that has to change before somebody dies.”
“Decriminalizing homelessness in Austin is a human rights and racial justice issue,” said Holly Kirby, Criminal Justice Programs Director for Grassroots Leadership. “This is about every person in our community having an equal right to public space. Right now, black folks are 6 times more likely to be ticketed under these anti-homeless laws, which are counter-productive, expensive and racist. It is time to end this, it's long overdue.”
“Young people make up a significant number of homeless people not just in this city, but across the country,” said Lauren Cebulske, a UT student and a member of Texas Rising. “Criminalizing homeless people through anti-camping, anti-sit/lie and anti-panhandling ordinances seeks to push them out of sight and out of mind so that the broader issues of poverty, inequality and access to health care go unaddressed. Addressing those problems, including ensuring enough shelter beds and providing better access to mental and other health care services, is the real solution.”
Alan Graham, CEO & Founder of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, said, “Mobile Loaves & Fishes operates from a core belief that homelessness is tied to a catastrophic disconnection from community. Criminalizing behaviors associated with homelessness further that disconnection. Changing these ordinances is one step in the direction of reconnection and palliative relief for our brothers and sisters on the streets of Austin.”
The coalition includes Grassroots Leadership, Texas Advocates for Justice, Mobile Loaves and Fishes, Texas Fair Defense Project, Texas Rising of the Texas Freedom Network, Stonewall Rising, Gathering Ground Theatre, Texas Interfaith and DSA-Austin.
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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.
Maria Reza, firstname.lastname@example.org, (512)-499-8111
Holly Kirby, email@example.com, (512)-499-8111