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Photo by Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT

Austin police officers clear homeless encampments around City Hall

Tuesday, June 15, 2021 by Andrew Weber, KUT

Austin police officers on Monday cleared encampments around City Hall that were erected by people experiencing homelessness. The city said in a statement that officers were moving people from the corner of Guadalupe and Cesar Chavez streets for construction work.

The city said officers met with people staying in tents in the morning and told them they had to leave. Those who refused would be given a citation or face arrest for violating the reinstated city ordinance banning camping in public places.

Proposition B, the ballot measure to reinstate the city’s previous rules against public camping, officially went into effect May 11, but the city is implementing a staggered approach to enforcement. On Sunday, officers began issuing warnings and tickets, punishable by a fine of up to $500.

APD is advising officers to issue tickets only as a last resort for now, but starting July 11 they will issue tickets to people who don’t heed warnings.

Officers also moved people on the north side of City Hall for trespassing on private property, the city said. Officials said the people camping there were told about the construction project and the trespassing issue over the past 30 days. While several people were arrested Monday morning, it’s unclear what they were arrested for. Nor is it clear how many citations were issued. KUT has reached out to APD for comment, but has not yet heard back.

Antonio Jackson had chemotherapy Monday morning for stage 3 lung cancer. He was resting afterward in his tent on Second Street when he was rousted by two officers just before 9 a.m. As demonstrators yelled through bullhorns at police cordoning off streets, he leaned on a trash can, sapped of energy on the hot, muggy morning. Next to him were his tent and a bag with all his belongings.

Antonio Jackson, who was staying in a tent outside City Hall, was told by Austin police to relocate. Photo by Gabriel C. Pérez.

Jackson told KUT nobody told him he was violating the city’s camping ban or that he was on private property.

“Chemotherapy and heat (don’t) go together,” he said. “I’ve been staying in my tent since I got here, and now they’re just kicking me out. Now I have nowhere to go. I have no family.”

Jackson looked on with Erica Beaver as Austin Resource Recovery crews cleared camps along Second Street. Beaver is a native Austinite who said she became homeless only recently. She said she didn’t get a heads-up, either.

She said the City Hall camp, which cropped up after Austin voters reinstated the camping ban, was better than where she was before. She said she wasn’t abused as much for being a trans woman there and had felt “a sense of purpose.”

“I think it helped me rebuild and realize there’s a lot more than being verbally attacked by people constantly,” she said, “especially about your gender or your sexual identity or anything … you don’t necessarily have control over.”

Artist Jesus Guadalupe Peña Gonzalez, who goes by Denver, argued with an APD officer as the clearing wrapped up. He’d gone to pick up some of his art early in the morning, but it was gone.

He also claimed he didn’t receive notice of the clearing.

“It’s a little bit devastating how much art I lost,” he said. “I lost books. If they would’ve asked me, I would’ve moved.”

The city said officers and members of the HOST team – a cross-departmental group of Austin-Travis County EMS medics, APD officers, and staff from the Downtown Austin Community Court and Integral Care – had visited more than 40 encampments before Monday.

HOST team members spoke with Denver as another man, who identified himself as Zion, was arrested. He said he was trying to get ahold of someone from HOST as he was being put in the back of a police wagon.

“I am not a criminal. I have a criminal background, and I can’t get housing,” the man said. “This is the reason why the Black man can’t get an apartment in Austin.”

The city said it’s working to increase temporary shelter space and create designated campsites for people experiencing homelessness.

“At the same time,” the statement said, “we are focused on aggressive expansion of long-term stable housing for people experiencing homelessness through the initiatives like HEAL, creation of new permanent supportive housing resources and partnerships with critical community organizations.”

City Manager Spencer Cronk, interim Police Chief Joseph Chacon and Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey will have a news conference Tuesday to provide updates on the city’s enforcement strategy.

At the corner of Guadalupe and Second streets just before noon, both Jackson and Beaver said they weren’t sure where they’d go. Beaver said she understood the change to the city ordinance, but that the lack of warning and uncertainty make transitioning out of homelessness all the harder.

“We all have the same goal,” she said. “Whether you have a house or not, we all have the same goal. I think if we all leave this earth better than when we got here, we all win.”

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