On Thursday, January 27, the Austin City Council is preparing to change the No Sit/No Lie Ordinance. This ordinance allows for fines up to $500 for people who (even momentarily) sit or lie down in public places.
On January 1, 2011, House the Homeless, Inc., a grassroots organization fighting for the civil rights of all persons, conducted a health survey. The survey showed that 48% of people experiencing homelessness in Austin suffer disabling conditions that are so severe they are unable to work. Nonetheless, the No Sit/No Lie ordinance makes no exceptions for this group of people and continues to fine and jail them for the act of momentarily sitting and resting.
The City of Austin, at the encouragement of House the Homeless, recognizing that it is presently in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), has set out to bring the ordinance in compliance with the federal law. To gain compliance, the City Council Health and Human Services Committee was preparing to present the full Council language that would exclude anyone with a disability from fines under the ordinance. Great! However, at the last minute, the committee has mistakenly inserted the work “physical” into the statement. Now, the language would basically read, “Anyone with a physical disability would be excluded from fines under the ordinance.” The effect of this one-word change is both dramatic and devastating.
It would mean that anyone with a mental health disability would be subject to fines and forced to enter the criminal justice system to defend themselves. Imagine the least capable among us, people with mental health disabilities, being steered into our court system and clogging it up just because they had a momentary respite. It is well documented in the journals of American Medical Association that people suffering with mental health disorders are routinely treated with very powerful drugs that often cause them to become woozy and dizzy. They often have sunlight and heat sensitivity that depletes them of their energy and causes them to need to temporarily sit and rest.
The promoters of this one-word change attempt to justify their targeting people with mental disabilities by saying that they would be protected under the language “physical disabilities” because they would be having a “physical” reaction to taking medication that causes them to need to temporarily sit down. Really? This sounds more like slippery lawyer talk and a thinly-disguised rationale created to persecute and prosecute people with mental health problems.
Hey — it’s not the Americans with “Physical” Disabilities Act. It’s the Americans with Disabilities Act, period. The basis of which is not physical problems or mental problems but rather medical problems.
In essence, the Austin City Council is also contending that it is absolutely, 100% impossible for a uniformed City of Austin police officer to identify someone who has a mental health concern. Really? Is it really so hard to read the label on a medication vial that says Haldol, Thorazine, Risperadol, or Zyprexa, and also see that someone needs to sit momentarily? Or to look at an individual presenting a letter from a local mental health facility and make a good judgment as to the legitimacy of the situation?
Furthermore, adding insult to injury, as proposed, the police officer will have no latitude whatsoever but to ticket this mentally ill person and send him or her on to the courts. What are the odds of that person showing up? And if that person stands before a judge (unrepresented or at taxpayer expense) showing that judge the same medical vial or document from MHMR, what then? The way the law will be written, the judge will also have no latitude and be forced to fine the individual hundreds of dollars that he or she will have no chance of paying.
What then? A warrant for their arrest for failure to pay the fine? Once arrested, will we then clog our jail system with people experiencing mental illness needing special medication treatment?
What then? Well, House the Homeless and others will have no choice but sue the city for repeated, flagrant violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act — all at taxpayer expense!
What’s the alternative? Well, we could simply use the original agreed-upon language that excludes all people with medical disabilities from fines and allow police officers to use their good sense and street smarts to determine who can sit and rest momentarily. And Austin can move to become the “world class” city that it purports to be simply by providing enough benches citywide so that anyone, such as moms toting kids and packages, can just sit for a moment and rest briefly before they move on.