House Bill 1925 makes camping in an unapproved public place a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $500.
"I can honestly say, I think every legislator in this building had a first degree experience that was very negative because of the homeless situation and the danger that is happening in our city streets, and, so, we all kind of came together and decided that we really needed to have some state policies to affect this," said state Sen. Dawn Buckingham (R-Lakeway).
Co-sponsors of the bill, now law, said the legislation was a direct response to Austin City Council’s decision to lift a camping ban in the city two years ago.
"When you see what’s happening with the homelessness population, because of the failed practices of our City Council, it’s unsustainable, it’s unacceptable," Buckingham said.
Cities are not able to opt out or discourage enforcement of the new law. However, cities with camping bans on the books, that are just as or more restrictive than the state law, are not impacted by it. Meaning, because Austin residents voted to reinstate the city’s camping ban, the local laws don’t really change. Still, lawmakers are hoping enforcement will.
"I think it’s the only thing that’s going to get enforcement in Austin. That’s why we had the state ban. Back in May, when the Austin voters overwhelmingly supported re-instituting the ordinances, everyone looked at me, some of the Austin Democrats, and said, ‘We don’t need this bill, you know, Austin is fixed.’ And clearly that is not the case," said Buckingham.
Other law enforcement agencies, like the Texas Department of Public Safety, will be able to issue citations under the state law.
The Texas Homeless Network said that will only make it more difficult to get people off the street.
"If you are on the street, or in a shelter, you don’t have the capacity to pay that type of fine, so that will go on your record, and if it’s on your record, it follows you when you’re trying to apply for assistance or for housing," said THN president and CEO Eric Samuels.
THN believes lawmakers would have more luck clearing homeless camps by directing available federal funding towards solving homelessness. "I’d like to see us focus on the solutions to homelessness, rather than banning homelessness and moving people into the shadows and out of sight," Samuels said.
Lawmakers said the new law will help by directing people who are homeless to available resources, as officers are expected to point people to shelters and nonprofits whenever they issue citations.
"Police want to help these people too, and it just gives them the tools they need to get those folks to make good decisions and get to a place where they can get the help that they need," said Buckingham.
The law also bans cities from using public parks as sanctioned homeless campsites- something Austin city leaders considered doing earlier this year.
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