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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Don't Sit and Stay for Long

The American-Statesman in Austin, Texas reports that a 6-year-old ordinance aimed at keeping the homeless from lingering in front of downtown shops, homes and bars now makes exceptions for people with disabilities.

Prior to April 30, 2011 no one was permitted to sit or lie down in downtown Austin, Texas. Now, new rules generously allow people with physical or mental disabilities to sit or lie on the sidewalk for up to 30 minutes.

Homeless advocates say this change is needed because many homeless people have disabilities that force them to rest. But some are wary of the new exceptions to the law, fearing that it will exacerbate begging, public drunkenness and safety problems.

Although the ordinance applies to everyone in the downtown area, the majority of tickets are issued to homeless people, said Richard Troxell, founder of House the Homeless.

In 2009 , 96 percent of the 2,729 tickets issued went to homeless people, he said. Advocates came up with that number by looking at the addresses listed on the tickets, such as the Salvation Army or local churches.

Efforts to revamp the sit-lie ordinance began in the spring of 2010 after homeless people were ticketed for sitting down in line while waiting for service at a downtown health clinic, Troxell said. Homeless advocates claimed the practice was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act because some of the people being ticketed had disabilities and the city needed to make reasonable accommodations for them.

After months of discussion, the Austin City Council voted in March to allow exemptions to the law. Under the new rules, people with medical problems — such as diabetes, mental illness, heart problems or cerebral palsy — can sit or lie down for up to 30 minutes.

If someone receives a ticket, they must to prove to the court that they have a disability and were experiencing a medical problem that forced them to rest at that moment.

Records from the Community Court show that many violations of the sit-lie ordinance do end up in the criminal justice system. Of the 3,131 tickets issues in 2010, almost 25 percent (772) resulted in arrest warrants because the accused did not appear in court or comply with a court agreement.
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