August 18, 2015

Mayor Steve Adler

City Manager Marc Ott

PO Box 1088

Austin, TX 78767

Dear Mayor Adler and City Manager Ott,

In 1995, as the City of Austin prepared to pass the No Camping Ordinance, House the Homeless made it clear that arresting people who are homeless for sleeping in public places when full-time minimum wage workers are paid so little that they cannot afford basic housing or when there is insufficient emergency shelter beds, is in violation of the 8th amendment of the U.S. Constitution and therefore criminalizes poverty and the condition of being homeless.

Our continued efforts at the national level through our involvement with the National Coalition for the Homeless coupled with the efforts of the National Law Center on Hunger and Homelessness has resulted in the Justice Department’s issuance of the attached document in which it addresses the criminalization of homelessness when people have no alternatives but to sleep in public.  Note- The City of Austin’s battle for/against the No Camping Ordinance is well chronicled in the book Looking Up at the Bottom Line: The Struggle for the Living Wage.

Presently, in the city of Austin, two things occur.  The Federal Minimum Wage, currently at $7.25, is the Federal wage standard.  This is well below the same government guideline (see

Secondly, the primary emergency shelter for single homeless men is the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, ARCH.  The number of people experiencing homelessness in Austin has been counted in the thousands. Each night they are invited to enter a lottery every evening for the possibility of securing one of the 100 emergency beds, 20-40% of which are already allocated for case-managed occupants.  A second lottery for one of a limited number of mats on the floor occurs two hours later.  Failure to win a mat at the second lottery results in the applicant needing to leave the shelter to find lodging elsewhere.  It is then hours later and usually dark outside, leaving the applicant to look for shelter out of doors where it is illegal to “camp,” leaving the individual subject to ticketing and then arrest for failure to pay, and subsequently to be saddled with a criminal record that only serves as a further barrier to escaping homelessness. Note- Failure historically to have a corresponding adequate number of beds has had a chilling effect on the number of those even seeking housing.

In view of the Justice Department’s statement … “that making it a crime for people who are homeless to sleep in public places, when there is insufficient shelter space in a city, unconstitutionally punishes them for being homeless.” Therefore, House the Homeless makes the following recommendation: That the No Camping Ordinance be struck down entirely and removed from the books.  In the meantime, effective in the next 30 business days (October 1, 2015)  that people experiencing homelessness when being turned away from any emergency shelter be logged in a permanent record book and given a receipt indicating that they have attempted to secure shelter but none was available on that date.  Police officers should be instructed to not issue “No Camping” tickets to anyone producing a receipt or to anyone on any day where the ARCH or any other City of Austin based shelter has issued such receipts.  The Community Court, Municipal Court and the Police Department must also be apprised on an ongoing daily basis.

            Additionally, all “Quality of Life” ordinances such as the “No Sit/No Lie” ordinances should immediately come under review regarding their constitutionality.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Sincerely,

Richard R. Troxell

President/CEO

 

CC:  Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo

All City of Austin Council Members

All Public Safety Commissioners

Margot Frasier- Office of the City Monitor

Community Court Judge Michael Coffey

Community Court Administrator- Peter Valdez

Municipal Court Judge Sherry Statman

COA Police Chief Art Acevedo

COA Police Association- Howard Safir

National Coalition for the Homeless- John Parvensky

National Law Center on Hunger and Homelessness- Eric Tars

Judge Phil Sanders- retired

Gary Bledsoe- Texas NAACP

Nelson Linder- Austin NAACP

David Hall, Robert Doggett & Fred Fuchs- Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid

Jim Harrington-Texas Civil Rights Project

Austin American Statesman- Andrea Ball

Austin Chronicle- Louis Black

KUT/NPR- Joy Diaz