Austin’s New Homelessness Czar Leaves In Midst Of Debate Over Public Camping

The position is now vacant, and the city is moving ahead with discussions over possible sidewalk “clearance zones” and more.

By Jill AmentOctober 11, 2019 11:53 am, , , ,

Just one month into her job as Austin’s homeless strategy officer, Lori Pamiplo Harris is stepping down. This comes as Austin faces a threat from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott over its city council’s recent efforts to decriminalize public camping by those experiencing homelessness.

Andrew Weber has been reporting on this story for Austin’s NPR station, KUT. He says Harris came to Austin from Orlando where she worked with that city’s mayor to reduce homelessness there.

“She spearheaded the city’s efforts to reduce homelessness by 25% in a single year, specifically among veterans,” Weber says. “She came highly recommended.”

But Harris said she was stepping down for family reasons. She will still work with the city as a consultant and help facilitate communication between different city departments dealing with homelessness, like transportation, public health and the police.

Right now, Austin is in the midst of decriminalizing homelessness. In July, it did away with an ordinance that made it illegal for people to camp or sit or lie in public spaces.

“The city used to hand out a lot of tickets for these. … In 2015, they handed out about 3,000 tickets,” Weber says. “Most of them went unpaid.”

Now, there’s more encampments in visible public spaces, especially under highway overpasses. Gov. Abbott has called it a public health hazard, Weber says, and he wants the city to go back to the old ordinance. Austin City Council is discussing whether it will comply. One solution it’s considering are so-called clearance zones.

“Areas where a sidewalk is X amount of feet passable, then [the encampment] would be legal. Then, obviously, if it’s not passable, then it would be illegal,” Weber says.

He says Austin welcomes state assistance, but it’s still not clear how, exactly, the city would use those resources.

As for the homeless strategy officer position, Weber says it’s currently vacant.


Written by Caroline Covington.