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APD to issue citations beginning Sunday as part of Prop B enforcement

Wednesday, July 7, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

The Austin Police Department could begin issuing citations this Sunday, July 11, for camping, panhandling and resting in the public right of way in downtown, West Campus and part of East Austin – areas where such activities were allowed before Proposition B passed in May – Lt. Lawrence Davis told the Public Safety Commission yesterday. 

The department is currently in the second phase of Prop B implementation, which involves written warnings about the reinstated laws and a recommendation that people be prepared to move. As part of the department’s phased approach to enforcing the restored ordinance following the successful ballot measure in May, APD has not issued any citations or made any arrests. 

Beginning Sunday, however, people who have received a written warning may receive a citation. After the citation phase, which ends Aug. 7, APD could begin arresting people who do not comply with the law.

A phased approach to enforcement is normal for new (or in this case reinstated) public safety laws, Davis explained. He mentioned that when City Council established penalties for texting and driving in August 2014, APD did not hand out citations until January 2015.

Though APD must enforce the law, it’s hoping for “voluntary compliance” – meaning no citations or arrests. Davis also said that the goal is to divert people to social services and housing, even in cases of citation and arrest.

“We want to do it humanely, and we want to preserve people’s dignity and respect,” Davis said. “We want to ask in everything we do, what harm are we going to cause, and how can we best mitigate that harm?”

“The elephant in the room is, where do we tell these folks to go?” Davis said. As many in the meeting noted, social services and housing for people experiencing homelessness are underfunded – though that could change should Travis County and philanthropists join the city’s call to fund homelessness services and housing

Those who are charged with violations related to homelessness go through the Downtown Austin Community Court, whose goal is rehabilitation, not punishment. Commissioner Rebecca Bernhardt, however, argued that the court isn’t working. “The information that I’ve heard from the homeless population is that the community court is really not, and hasn’t been for a long time, a good solution for homeless folks,” she said.

The commission also heard from Downtown Austin Alliance Vice President Bill Brice, who presented the nonprofit’s monthly count of unsheltered homeless people within the Downtown Austin Public Improvement District. 

According to the survey, in June there were approximately 808 unsheltered people living in the area, compared to 813 in May. The figure is based on a count of actual people in addition to estimates based on the number of tents and vehicles in which people are likely living. The count of unsheltered individuals increased 35 percent from May to June, from 322 to 436, while the count of those living in tents decreased by 27 percent, from 463 to 337. 

Figures by Downtown Austin Alliance

The meeting took an animated turn when Commissioner Rebecca Webber accused DAA of caring more about the bottom line of downtown businesses than the welfare of people experiencing homelessness. “Your organization’s goal is to move people out of downtown so businesses can make more money,” Webber said. 

Brice strongly refuted the accusation. He said that, on the contrary, one of the organization’s stated goals is to solve homelessness by lobbying for housing-focused policy. “I’ve been with the organization 18 years – there is no goal of Downtown Austin Alliance to move people out of downtown who are experiencing homelessness,” Brice said. “We do have a stated goal to help solve the problem. We also are here to help keep downtown Austin safe and welcoming for everyone.”

Brice also emphasized that the organization “had nothing to do with Prop B” or Save Austin Now, the PAC behind the ballot measure. Brice did say that while DAA lobbied in favor of the state-level camping ban, which Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law last month, it was only to have a seat at the table in order to negotiate a more humane law.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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