Homelessness decriminalization reveals rift in community, at risk of being rolled back

In June, Austin City Council voted to decriminalize sitting, laying down, sleeping and panhandling in public places. Prior to the new law, people experiencing homelessness were repeatedly fined for sleeping outdoors. If they were unable to pay — which often happened — they could be arrested.

The decision sparked an intense debate. Some Austinites applauded the decision as a much needed end to cruel and unfair ordinances. Others, including Governor Greg Abbott, raised concerns about safety — but spread misinformation to do it. He has written two letters to the Austin City Council this month urging them to revise the law to address safety concerns, threatening state intervention if no changes are made.  

The UT community has been an active participant in the debate. UT organizations such as SafeHorns and UTPD have come out against the decriminalization, calling on City Hall to ban camping in West Campus. UT Student Government passed a resolution supporting the June decriminalization, however, and The Daily Texan’s editorial board published a piece criticizing these countermeasures for their needless cruelty while calling upon students to support efforts at decriminalizing homelessness. 

This week, City Council members will meet to discuss and vote on possible revisions to the law. The council is considering an “encampment response strategy” that would focus on providing resources to settlements of people experiencing homelessness as well as revisions to the ordinance allowing sleeping in public places that would exclude much of downtown and West Campus.

In this forum, City of Austin commissioner Nathan Ryan discusses the systemic challenges facing individuals experiencing homelessness and how every sector of our community needs to band together to create innovative solutions to this issue. 

Austin Community College philosophy professor Bryan Register exposes myths associated with homelessness, arguing for Austinites to recognize the humanity in our homeless population. 

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