A look back at the history of Austin’s camping ordinance


I thought it’d be useful to look back at how this whole camping debate started. No, not this past summer, when Council voted to decriminalize camping/sitting/lying. Let’s go back to when the camping ordinance was first implemented.

You could be forgiven for assuming the rules that Council scrapped had been on the books since the city was first incorporated. Based on the outrage their repeal has caused, you’d think a camping ordinance was a basic building block to any U.S. city.

Alas, City Council did not target homeless encampments until 1996. Let’s take a look at the Chronicle reporting on it at the time. How similar –– and yet how different –– the story is from the one we’ve been hearing the last few months:

On Thursday, January 25, the first day that the ordinance went into effect, making it a Class C misdemeanor for an individual to sleep, store personal belongings, cook, or build fires in public areas, about 200 people gathered on the steps of the Capitol building to protest its passage. 

APD vs. City Council
Back in ’96, the police also felt abandoned by City Council’s camping policies. But for very different reasons:

Michael Urubek says the city council is dreaming if it thinks the new encampment ordinance will succeed in solving the homeless problem. His view may not sound radical until you know who he is: Urubek is the Austin police lieutenant in charge of fielding questions about the city-wide camping ban. As spokesman for the municipal entity responsible for enforcing the new ordinance, Lt. Urubek knows he’s supposed to toe the party line about how the new law will aid police in cracking down on the homeless population. But the man just can’t seem to lie.

“What were the city council’s expectations after this [ordinance] was passed? The police department is not targeting the homeless. We don’t have the staff to round them up or the room to put them away,” Urubek huffs. “Maybe the council should have thought this through a little more.”

Urubek likens the council’s action to a political game. “[The councilmembers] said, `We’ll talk our game; we’ve done our job [by passing the ordinance]. And now we are not going to have homelessness anymore,'” he says. “But the only problem is, it’s not going to work in the long run… [Violators] will go in court one day and come out the next.”

Just like San Francisco! 
As is the case today, back in ’96 people responded to Council’s action by drawing comparisons with San Francisco.

Another city that, like Austin, has gained nationwide attention for defying its reputation as the liberal bastion of its state by cracking down on the homeless is San Francisco. City leaders there launched a campaign two years ago to ticket homeless people for some of the same offenses detailed in Austin’s new ordinance. According to an article in the Washinton Post on January 1, the move was widely criticized as having little impact other than wasting police resources and inconveniencing homeless people. Police issued more than 27,000 tickets with little effect. “Several million dollars have gone down the drain so this mayor’s office can give the business community the perception they’re addressing the problem, by having fewer homeless people visually present,” Paul Boden of the Coalition on Homelessness told the Post.

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