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Public Safety Commission recommends ceasing Prop B citations

Wednesday, August 4, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

The Public Safety Commission Monday recommended that City Council halt citations and arrests related to Proposition B, arguing that public camping should not be criminalized when people don’t have anywhere else to go.

“There are myriad reasons listed for why this feels appropriate,” Commissioner Nelly Paulina Ramirez said. “First and foremost, it’s impossible at this point to safely and humanely relocate people.”

In the commission’s view, police enforcement should only become an option when there is housing or shelter available for everyone experiencing homelessness.

The Austin Police Department only began issuing citations last month as part of a phased approach to Prop B enforcement. The department first conducted a month of outreach to homeless people, followed by another month of written warnings to those still in violation of the law. According to Assistant Chief Robin Henderson, APD has issued 14 citations as of last week. APD will be able to arrest people who continue to violate the law beginning Aug. 8.

Council is unlikely to follow the recommendation. Ordering APD to halt enforcement would run afoul of Prop B, which reinstates criminal penalties for camping and other behaviors related to homelessness. Doing so would also almost certainly result in legal challenges.

Commissioner Rebecca Bernhardt acknowledged this reality. “I want us to write something that heads the city of Austin in a direction that’s lawful, that doesn’t get it sued for not following Prop B, but also keeps everybody from getting tickets,” she said, adding: “On the fly in this conversation, I am not sure how to do that.”

Because of the shortage of housing for the homeless, the only people who have been offered places to go live in locations targeted by the HEAL Initiative. The initiative, passed by Council in February, clears prominent campsites while giving the inhabitants immediate shelter in a converted hotel and the promise of permanent housing once units become available.

Everyone else isn’t so fortunate. APD and others have directed people in other locations to service providers such as Family Eldercare, but according to Karly Jo Dixon with the Texas Fair Defense Project, “there are no shelter beds; there is no housing available to people outside of the HEAL Initiative right now.”

Dixon called the situation a “humanitarian crisis,” adding that “the process of sending in law enforcement … is an added cruelty.”

The commission also supported designated campsites on city-owned land, though Council looks likely to abandon the strategy. The city is, however, poised to spend more money than ever to combat homelessness. The city manager’s proposed budget dedicates a record $65.2 million in homelessness spending. The city has also committed $100 million in federal stimulus funds to the problem, but only if Travis County and local philanthropy also contribute substantially.

The commission recommended that the city give Austin Mutual Aid $1.2 million toward monthlong hotel stays for 450 people experiencing homelessness to keep them out of the criminal justice system. Sasha Rose, an organizer with Austin Mutual Aid, said that the organization spent $635,000 on two-week hotel stays for 467 people during and after Winter Storm Uri.

The organization is also looking to acquire land for public camping. “If we could be given land for public camping and then some resources to support us,” Rose said, “I think that we could really help bridge the gap.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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