Texas, with its warmer climate and lower cost of living, is hardly a rookie when it comes to the issue of homelessness. But in Austin, the conversation has turned particularly heated. Like at a forum held at Saint Edwards University earlier this month, which at times erupted into shouting.
What has tempers running so hot in the capital city is a relaxation of Austin’s ordinance spelling out where people can sit, lie and set up camps in public spaces.
Last June, the Austin City Council approved new rules that allow people to lie and camp in certain public places, as long as they aren’t blocking sidewalks or creating public health or safety hazards.
The move is part of a national trend to decriminalize homelessness, which advocates say is a vital step in helping people get back on their feet. When people are no longer cited for sleeping outside or asking for money, they’re far less likely to enter the criminal justice system. Studies have shown that once a homeless individual is jailed, that criminal record makes it even harder to get a job or find permanent housing.
But in Austin, the transition to decriminalizing homelessness and the flurry of encampments that have popped up as a result has some Austin residents concerned that the city is now less safe.
Austin Councilmember Leslie Pool says the city’s homeless population is now more visible of a result of the city’s new ordinance. But they’re mistaking that visibility for an actual increase in the homeless population. She says there’s no evidence that shows that. Pool agrees with residents though that making it easier for homeless individuals to camp in public spaces has led to some panhandling more aggressively.
“And so people are more visible but they are also more aggressive,” she says. “I’m hearing anecdotal stories almost daily now from people from all over the city with them being harassed or hassled.”
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