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APD updates the Public Safety Commission after a day of homeless camp cleanups

Tuesday, November 5, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

Questions surrounding the city’s revised camping, sitting and resting ordinances were brought to the public’s attention Monday as the state stepped in for cleanup operations and the city of Austin simultaneously conducted an operation to enforce its camping ban outside the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless.

At the Nov. 4 meeting of the Public Safety Commission, APD Chief Brian Manley told commissioners that people experiencing homelessness had all voluntarily left upon request and there had been no enforcement necessary by the Department of Public Safety. Cleanup efforts at the ARCH, he said, will conclude tomorrow morning.

The revision of the camping ordinances and the re-revisions of the revision have left Austinites scrambling to keep track of what is permitted and what is prohibited when it comes to homeless camping, sitting and resting around town.

While the city and the police department have been working to enforce the new ordinances, Gov. Greg Abbott had the Texas Department of Transportation step in Monday to clean up camps under bridges.

Although the state-led cleanups are requiring homeless people to gather their belongings and vacate the premises, Chief Manley told the commission that “they (the state) are not prohibiting people from going back under the bridges.”

Under Austin ordinances, camping under highway overpasses is legal as long as it does not endanger public health and safety.

While the city is not participating directly in TxDOT’s cleanup efforts, Manley told the Austin Monitor that he had no concerns about the state taking charge of certain areas around town. “We’ve got a very close working relationship,” he said.

The Public Works Department has been cleaning up these same overpass areas since 2018 when TxDOT decided not to renew its cleanup contract with Austin.

Chief Manley said that instead of doing double duty and continuing to clean up these areas, “by the state taking responsibility … this will allow the city to take on other areas.” He did not specify which particular areas the police department would target for cleanup.

The evolving ordinances have caused disruption within the police department. Chief Manley told the commission that conveying the nuances of the ordinances to officers has required the department to put out multiple detailed training bulletins. However, he said that enforcement is only required in a small percentage of the interactions officers have with those camping on the streets. Prior to the ordinance change, officer requests to vacate in the downtown area had a 98 percent compliance rate, according to Manley. Going forward, he did not expect this percentage to change.

To further mitigate potential citations, during the most recent update to the ordinance, the city asked the police department to make a list of homeless individuals within a predefined boundary around the ARCH and the Salvation Army downtown shelters. APD will need to offer non-shelter housing options to those on the list before enforcing any ordinance violations.

Last Monday, Chief Manley said the department provided that list, which included 156 individuals, 65 of whom identified themselves and would be eligible to receive housing opportunities before being subject to enforcement.

Chair Ed Scruggs wondered about the effect on public safety since the changing of the ordinances and if permitting freer camping has in any way jeopardized public safety.

Chief Manley said that the department is collecting data on crimes involving homeless individuals and will continue to report on it and track trends.

Other commissioners wondered whether the department was tracking displacement resulting from the cleanup efforts.

“It’s pretty clear that not all of them are going to shelters and we’re about to come up on some pretty darn cold weather,” said Commissioner Meghan Hollis.

The department is working with Integral Care to keep tabs on those who have been forced to move, and Chief Manley said that the department would wait until next week to see who returns to their former encampments.

Although the cleanups were intended to improve public safety, Commissioner Chris Harris criticized the efforts from both the state and the city police department, calling them “pointless cruelty.” He said, “We have caused a lot of heartache and harm to persons experiencing homelessness for no reason.”

Photo by Jo Clifton.

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