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APD officers continue to direct homeless to campsite closed for new residents

Friday, September 23, 2022 by Chad Swiatecki

The Austin Police Department has for months continued to direct homeless individuals to a camping site that has been closed to new residents, leaving people with no legal place to find shelter while staying with their belongings.

At Wednesday’s meeting of the Downtown Commission, APD Commander Eric Fitzgerald delivered a report about safety issues in downtown Austin, including progress on addressing homelessness in the area. After presenting data from a Sept. 14 count by the Downtown Austin Alliance showing a 30 percent increase in unsheltered individuals since January, and no change in the number of tents or structures, Fitzgerald discussed the process APD officers must use to try to connect the homeless with shelter and social services.

One of those steps is telling a homeless person where they may legally camp, with Fitzgerald noting that the Camp Esperanza site in Southeast Austin is the only location available.

Commissioner David Gomez, who works at Camp Esperanza, told Fitzgerald that the camp has been closed to new residents since the spring because of the ongoing construction of tiny home structures on the site.

“We have received some people that show up overnight and we’re going ‘Where in the hell did this guy come from?’ We figured maybe it’s that they’re being told they can come here by APD, but we’re closed to new registrations,” Gomez said.

Reached by phone Thursday night, an employee for The Other Ones Foundation that manages the site confirmed that there are regular visits from homeless people directed to the site by police officers, despite workers repeatedly telling the department that they are unable to welcome new residents until the construction work is complete. Currently, there are 110 people living at Camp Esperanza, which at its peak could accommodate 250 people.

Fitzgerald replied that he was unaware the site was closed to new residents and said he’d meet with the commissioner to discuss other referral options.

Those possibilities appear limited since there has been no movement by City Council on establishing new homeless encampments outside of Camp Esperanza, which was created on a piece of state-owned land.

Last summer city staff announced two possible sites – Manor Road near Airport Boulevard and Convict Hill Road near Brodie Lane – as the best options. There has been no subsequent action following the site selection that was narrowed down from 45 possible city-owned parcels.

Fitzgerald said officers are generally first concerned with connecting a homeless person with assistance rather than writing a misdemeanor ticket that would come after giving the person 30 minutes to comply with directions to vacate the public space they were occupying.

“There’s a lot of logistical challenges that come with actually making a custody arrest for camping … generally these folks have a lot of possessions with them and we’re still working with our evidence folks to decide can we bring trucks full of this stuff to store for them,” he said.

“With the staffing crisis and limited resources that we have, our goal is to ensure that with any enforcement operation there’s meaningful impact … we focus on the mechanism of jail diversion and how we can get this individual resources and notify of places that they can camp, give them a reasonable opportunity for voluntary compliance.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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