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Photo by Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT
Wednesday, May 12, 2021 by Andrew Weber, KUT
City leaders, Austin police say arrests will be a ‘last resort’ as enforcement of homelessness ordinances resumes
It’s illegal – once again – for people experiencing homelessness to set up encampments throughout most of the city. Sitting or lying down in some stretches of Austin and panhandling at night are also against the law after voters this month approved a proposition to reinstate criminal penalties for those activities.
While those laws are officially back on the books, the city says it’s not ticketing anyone yet for violating them – at least not immediately.
City officials reiterated at a news conference Tuesday that they hope to provide outreach to people at encampments in the next two months and then resort to ticketing, or even arrests, if people continue camping in public.
For the next 30 days, the city says, tickets won’t be issued. Authorities will give some tickets and verbal warnings during the following 30-day period.
Interim Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon said today that arrests will be “a last resort.”
“We have put together a plan that will include components of education and outreach, as well as enforcement, so that we are responsibly managing our public spaces and meeting voters’ expectations,” Chacon said.
Chacon and other city officials outlined a four-phased approach that folds in multiple city departments, including Parks and Recreation, Public Works, Austin Resource Recovery and the city’s Homeless Strategy Office, among others.
In the first phase, Austin police, along with other city departments, will begin reaching out to encampments to let them know they are in violation of the ban that was reinstated as a result of Proposition B, a petition-driven effort to undo City Council’s decision to rescind Austin’s camping ban in 2019.
If a camp poses an immediate danger to public health or safety, people could be cited immediately.
During the second 30-day phase, which runs from June 14-July 10, APD will begin issuing verbal warnings and citations.
After that, people who don’t comply could be cited or arrested. Camps could also be cleared, but only after a 72-hour notice is posted at encampments.
The Downtown Austin Community Court will handle cases stemming from citations and arrests, and the diversion court hopes to provide alternatives to jail time that include case management and housing support services.
Chacon said APD will initially focus on camps that may be at risk of flood or wildfire danger, as well as camps at which drug activity or violence have been reported.
The city will lean on the Homeless Outreach Street Team to reach out to encampments throughout the process. HOST was set up in 2017 to reduce arrests and help connect homeless Austinites to medical and housing resources. The team is a partnership with APD, Austin-Travis County EMS, Integral Care and case managers at the Downtown Austin Community Court.
City Manager Spencer Cronk emphasized the enforcement strategy aims to also connect folks with housing resources. City Council approved a plan last week to identify city-owned land that could host temporary encampments, and Cronk is expected to have an initial report on that plan sometime this week.
“We all are doing everything we can to make sure this is implemented in a safe and humane way,” he said. “We are working to identify places where people can go.”
This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.
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