Between 2008 and 2010, House the Homeless (HtH) conducted several surveys and gathered other surveys conducted by both the City of Austin and the City of Houston that demonstrated that a majority of people experiencing homelessness want to work. To that end, we have been collaborating with Mobile Loaves and Fishes in our “Let’s Get to Work” Jobs Initiative. A more recent survey conducted in 2010 by House the Homeless shows that 48%, or about half, of those experiencing homelessness, are suffering debilitating health problems that are so severe that they are rendered incapable of working.
472 of the 501 people surveyed in this most recent survey felt that they periodically needed to sit down and rest from time to time, but 94% said they were unable to do so as they could not find a bench. Compounding the situation, there exists a “Quality of Life” ordinance in Austin that prevents people from sitting or lying down making them subject to fines of up to $500. This ordinance contains only one medical exception and that’s for people already sitting in a wheel chair. There aren’t even exceptions for people on crutches or using orthopedic leg braces. With health concerns ranging from Degenerative Heart Disease to Parkinson’s Disease to Degenerative Rheumatoid Arthritis, half of the homeless population is in need of exceptions to the ordinance.
We are now promoting 19 possible exceptions that range from Disability Award letters from the Social Security Administration or the Veterans Administration to participant letters in the David Powell-AIDS Program to people standing in line at a health clinic and so on. Two city-wide stakeholder meetings resulted in two additional recommended exemptions: evidence of taking psychiatric medications or when the heat index hits 100 degrees or more.
House the Homeless has met with all members of City Council and received favorable support. We pointed out that if exceptions are granted (as they should be) then people will be sitting down all over the city. We do not feel that people suffering disabilities should be sitting on the sidewalks etc. House the Homeless took 350 signatures of people requesting benches to the Mayor. We think that as we encourage people to be more “Green” and to leave their automobiles to create a “world class city” we should provide an ample number of benches to accommodate all citizens. This should include pregnant women, people with Christmas packages and those suffering disabilities. In response, Mayor Lee Leffingwell has directed the City Council Health and Human Services Committee to review the 19 “exemptions” requested by HtH and consider benches as part of the mitigation response.
Some social service providers have been opposed to benches suggesting their use may lead to illegal drug sales. HtH contends that drugs can be sold in either a sitting or standing position and in any event, this is a question of enforcement. The benches that House the Homeless recommends have center dividers so as to deter lying down.
The “Stakeholders” who attended the two meetings consisted of the Downtown Austin Alliance, The Austin Chamber of Commerce, about 10 uniformed police officers, their attorney, an attorney for Travis County, Downtown Community Court, City Staffers, a representative from the Omni and the Driscoll Hotels, downtown neighbors, representatives from the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, ARCH and a representative from Caritas. They were all joined in opposition and led by Charles Betts from the Downtown Austin Alliance. As a group and to the last person, they opposed any exceptions or any additional benches intended to be a response to this issue. Really? A doctor working for the United States Government determines that a person is disabled after a process that often takes up to 15 months to complete its findings is somehow unacceptable to this group? Or finding of a disability of a Military Medical Review Team for a person willing to sacrifice a leg in Afghanistan is unworthy of either an exception or a bench?
Today, HTH continues to look toward the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as possible legal recourse to provide the health relief associated with this issue.
Finally, City staff members have reported that “the Ordinance is working.” Really? For whom? In reviewing COA No Sit/No Lying Down ord. citations secured under the Open Records Act, the Community Court showed 2,729 tickets were issued between January 2009 through December 31st 2009. 70 tickets were subsequently dismissed with 708 convictions. So while the HtH survey indicated 48% of these folks had major disabilities, only 2.3% were dismissed on the basis of disability throu gh the court. At the same time, it has been observed by advocates that this ordinance has been used indiscriminately to sweep areas of people regardless of their disabilities. Using the Community Court as a filtering mechanism, in this instance, has proven unduly burdensome on this disabled population and ineffective. It would seem more humane and more cost effective to properly train police officers in an amended ordinance that clearly states specific exceptions.
While it is recommended that a strict list of exemptions be identified by Council, it is nonetheless the belief of HtH that the best common sense, practical response to the issue in a city seeking to attain world class stature, would be for us to simply provide an ample supply of benches available to all citizens.
At one point in time, it seemed okay to value other people in this country as 3/5th’s of that of other people. Almost everyone lined up behind that concept…but not everyone.
Richard R. Troxell
President, House The Homeless0