Monday, May 2, 2011

In Texas, city of Austin changes homeless ordinance so disabled people can sit or lie on sidewalks for 30 minutes

From the Austin American-Statesman:

A 6-year-old ordinance aimed at keeping the homeless from lingering in front of downtown shops, homes and bars now makes exceptions for people with disabilities.

Starting May 2, new rules that allow people with physical or mental disabilities to sit or lie on the sidewalk for up to 30 minutes go into effect.

It's a change homeless advocates say is needed because many homeless people have disabilities that force them to rest. But some are wary of the new exceptions to the law, fearing that it will exacerbate begging, public drunkenness and safety problems.

"We don't want to change this to interfere with the enforceability of the law," said Charlie Betts , executive director of the Downtown Austin Alliance. "We'll be watching to see how this works."

The sit-lie ordinance, as it is generally called, was passed in 2005 after downtown businesses and residents complained that homeless people routinely blocked sidewalks, panhandled aggressively and behaved disruptively.

The ordinance — a Class C misdemeanor punishable by fine of up to $500 — included exceptions for sitting in line for concert tickets or while watching a parade.

Although the ordinance applies to everyone in the downtown area, the majority of tickets are issued to homeless people, said Richard Troxell, founder of House the Homeless.

In 2009 , 96 percent of the 2,729 tickets issued went to homeless people, he said. Advocates came up with that number by looking at the addresses listed on the tickets, such as the Salvation Army or local churches.

Efforts to revamp the sit-lie ordinance began in the spring of 2010 after homeless people were ticketed for sitting down in line while waiting for service at a downtown health clinic, Troxell said. Homeless advocates claimed the practice was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act because some of the people being ticketed had disabilities and the city needed to make reasonable accommodations for them.

A House the Homeless survey of 501 people last year showed that 48 percent of respondents said they were disabled, Troxell said.

"These laws are all over the country, and none of them make allowances for people with disabilities," he said.

After months of discussion, the Austin City Council voted in March to allow exemptions to the law. Under the new rules, people with medical problems — such as diabetes, mental illness, heart problems or cerebral palsy — can sit or lie down for up to 30 minutes.

If someone receives a ticket, they must to prove to the court that they have a disability and were experiencing a medical problem that forced them to rest at that moment.

People can also sit down if they are in line to receive services, said Council Member Randi Shade, who worked on the issue.

"We want to encourage people who need services to get them," she said.

Betts says the law isn't just about keeping order downtown; it's about getting people the assistance they need. One of the functions of the Downtown Austin Community Court is to connect homeless people to services that help them get off the streets, such as mental health care or substance abuse treatment, he said.

"The community court cannot throw anybody in jail, but a judge can visit with the folks and try to help them in some way," Betts said.

Shade agreed that enforcement of the ordinance is not intended to be punitive but to strike a balance between the needs of homeless people and those of the business community. "We're not trying to criminalize homelessness," she said.

But records from the Community Court show that many violations of the sit-lie ordinance do end up in the criminal justice system. Of the 3,131 tickets issues in 2010, almost 25 percent (772 ) resulted in arrest warrants because the accused did not appear in court or comply with a court agreement, such as mental health or substance abuse treatment. Another 58 arrest warrants are pending from last year.

The rest of the citations were resolved through plea bargains (1,101 ), time served (725 ), dismissals (229 ) or other means.