Austin still struggles to find places for the homeless as it begins to enforce public camping ban

Since moving to Austin in 1992, Derek Lorentzson has worked for a drywall company, the shipping and receiving department of a computer company and then served in the Marines, he said. About ten years ago, he started living on the streets.

“My wife passed away, and I kind of stopped worrying about things and ended up here,” Lorentzson said in late July as he sat under a freeway where he had temporarily pitched his tent with his. 4 year old Chihuahua, Karma. . “Once you are homeless it is real, very difficult to become homeless. “

As the city begins enforcing its reinstated public camping ban this week, the 48-year-old said he plans to move his equipment to a more secluded location.

“I’m not going to stay here,” Lorentzson said. “It’s bad enough that I’m homeless. I’m quite ashamed of it. I don’t want to be here where everyone can see me all the time.

Clusters of tents and shelters are still visible alongside busy roads and under viaducts around town. And three months after voters approved a renewed ban on camping in public spaces through a voting initiative called Proposition B, the city said it would begin to fully enforce the ordinance this week.

After weeks of working to educate homeless people about the ordinance and hand out warnings, city officials said police would begin to ticket anyone who camped on public land – and arrest those who still refused to leave. their camps. Violation of the ban is a Class C felony, punishable by a fine of up to $ 500.

The Austin Police Department said in an emailed statement that arrests “will be made only as a last resort with an emphasis on connecting resources and services to the individual.”

City spokesman Yasmeen Hassan said many people had already abandoned their camps on public property. But she declined to say how – or when – the city will actually end the homeless camps if people refuse to leave voluntarily.

Meanwhile, the city has struggled to find alternatives for people who now pack shelters and camp in public spaces. It has bought or rented at least three older hotels to complete a network of urban shelters, but does not have enough space for the more than 3,000 estimated homeless people in the city.

The city also lacks enough case managers to help people secure housing and other services such as obtaining identity documents, applying for public benefits and finding employment.

“There is no right way to implement this proposal because there is not enough housing or safe places to go,” said Greg Casar, Austin City Council member. “That’s the main reason we’ve tried to reduce arrests and citations over the past two years, was to establish hundreds of other places where people can go safely.”

The city’s pressure on the enforcement comes less than a month before a statewide ban on public campsites took effect on September 1 – a law that followed repeated criticism from Gov. Greg Abbott of Austin’s decision to repeal the city’s 2019 camping ban. The new state law criminalizes public camping and prohibits cities from adopting policies that prohibit or discourage enforcement of any ban on public camping. Cities that pass such ordinances could risk legal action from the state attorney general and potentially lose state grant money.

Eric Samuels, president and CEO of the Texas Homeless Network, said local ordinances and state law would do little to address the homelessness problem.

“We cannot impose a fine or stop this immediately,” he said. “I mean, it never worked in any community, ever. And that’s going to be the case with that too.

First camps cleaned up

Since Proposal B came into effect, the city has said it has emptied a few encampments, including a cluster of about two dozen tents outside Austin City Hall that police have removed from mid-June and which have been cleaned up due to a construction project and for trespassing on private property.

Three other encampments – on the east side of town, in South Austin and downtown – were also cleared. About 70 people have been moved to a former Rodeway Inn that now serves as the city-owned 75-room bridge shelter – a temporary place where people can stay while waiting for more permanent accommodation. Another 60 people were moved to another old hotel with 65 rooms.

The city’s plan to buy a former Candlewood Suites hotel and convert it into 80 affordable housing units has been mired in protests and litigation. The city has also identified two city-owned properties as possible camp sites, but under the statewide public camping ban, cities are expected to seek approval from the Department of Housing and Affairs. communities in Texas before designating a property as a camp site.

Including the two former hotels functioning as bridge shelters, the city hopes to add up to 300 beds to the roughly 700 emergency shelter beds run by homeless service providers in Austin and Travis County. in 2021.

The city also announced funding of around $ 106.7 million it has allocated to expand housing and services for homeless people, most of it going towards a goal of 3,000 people in three years – in the part of a plan of nearly $ 515 million that will require financial support. Travis County and community partners.

Last week, the city’s Public Safety Commission, an advisory body that makes recommendations to city council, recommended city leaders order the Austin Police Department to suspend tickets and related arrests. to proposal B, unless housing options are available for those who are not accommodated. It is not clear whether city council will adopt the commission’s recommendation.

“It is impossible, at this stage, to relocate people safely and humanely, and there is simply no capacity at this stage,” said the vice-president of the commission, Nelly Paulina Ramirez, during of the committee meeting.

At the same meeting, Dianna Gray, the city’s homeless strategy manager, said that homeless people voluntarily leave public property when offered housing, dispelling the myth that they do not want no shelter or shelter.

“Our experience so far reiterates this, that people want shelter and accommodation and therefore people usually move voluntarily,” Gray said.

Fear of criminalization

Austin officials say that when police arrest someone for violating the new order, they will go to the city’s community diversion court rather than be incarcerated.

The court offers social service support and can put people in touch with case managers. In early July, around 300 people were on a waiting list for a case manager, the city said in a statement. Andy Tate, a city spokesperson, said defendants who do not have a case manager will still be able to access certain services such as obtaining identity documents, applying for public benefits and access to medical and mental health treatment.

Advocates for homeless people like Karly Jo Dixon, attorney in charge of the Texas Fair Defense Project, continue to fear that contravening people who camp publicly could result in the issuance of arrest warrants against them if they are not. unable to afford tickets or show up for required court dates. Warrants and criminal records can make it more difficult for people coming out of homelessness to rent an apartment or access social housing, she said.

“There is simply no housing solution [right now]”Dixon said.” I don’t understand how we can criminalize people who are literally trying to survive when there are no other options available. “

According to the city, if a person is fined but cannot pay, “Austin Municipal Court judges will try to find alternatives to the fine, such as community service work.”

Cleo Petricek, co-founder of Save Austin Now, the group that presented the ballot initiative to reinstate the city’s camping ban, said criminalizing homelessness was never intended.

“It was never a question of criminalizing, it is a question of obtaining [those experiencing homelessness] to seek services and seek shelter, ”said Petricek.

Luke White, 48, who said he had been homeless for more than a decade, said he had received numerous tickets over the years for sitting or lying in public places.

“It seems like wherever we go, we’re just not welcome anywhere, we’re just not welcome anywhere,” White said. “I can’t tell you how many tickets I got, stupid tickets [for] sitting, lying, just the stupid little things I have on my file. “

He said he did not pay any of the fines, adding that the police would do him “a favor by taking me to jail” because it is better than sleeping on the streets.

White said he was recently assigned to a case manager to help him find accommodation and figure out what to do about the tickets he has racked up over the years. And he recently landed a bus table work job at a downtown Austin restaurant. It doesn’t make much money, he said, but it does give him hope that he can get off the streets later this year.

“I want my home now while I’m alive,” he said.

Of The Texas Tribune.

About Charles D. Goolsby

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