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Austin Says Arrests At Homeless Camps Will Not Be 'Typical' As Police Ramp Up Camping Ban Enforcement

Camps outside City Hall and some on private property on 2nd Street were cleared on June 14 by Austin police and Austin Resource Recovery.
Camps outside City Hall and some on private property on 2nd Street were cleared on June 14 by Austin police and Austin Resource Recovery.

Austin leaders on Tuesday addressed the arrests of people experiencing homelessness as police and city staff cleared dozens of encampments around City Hall on Monday.

The arrests were for interfering with public duties and failure to obey a lawful order — not for violating the camping ban Austin voters reinstated in May — police said. People began camping near City Hall in protest of the ban's reinstatement. On Monday morning, the Austin Police Department and city staff moved people camped on private property and encampments in the way of an incoming construction project to build out bike and pedestrian infrastructure.

Scores of Austinites at the encampments Monday told KUT they hadn't been told to move. The tense scene came as the city and APD begin to more actively enforce the ban on public encampments. APD began more emphatically enforcing the ban on Sunday. While officers are empowered to ticket and arrest people, they're being encouraged to use criminal penalties as a last resort.

Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey said Tuesday that the arrests were not for violating the city ordinance banning camping, and that she hoped the confusion and arrests wouldn't be par for the course going forward.

"The actions that happened yesterday were not what would be typical under the rollout of the new camping ordinance," she said.

Austin's interim Police Chief Joseph Chacon said that while tickets and arrests would not be off the table going forward, he hopes officers will continue outreach in lieu of ticketing. The city's staggered approach has emphasized outreach since the ordinance went into effect on May 11. Since then, Chacon said, officers have given 390 warnings and visited 70 camps to tell folks they were in violation of Austin's ban on public camping.

Still, he admitted, officers don't yet have a clear answer where people can go for shelter.

"That's the part that we're working on right now," he said. "Part of the overall strategy and the longterm effort is making sure that, as we displace folks, we actually have some place that we can point them to."

The Austin City Council has been scrambling to find more short-term housing options for Austinites living outdoors in light of the reinstatement of the camping ban. For decades, Austin has not had enough shelter space for people experiencing unsheltered homelessness. Council has recently moved to set aside resources for a temporary shelter near Oltorf Street and I-35 for people being pushed out of high-profile encampments, and it's looking at setting up temporary encampments — a process that's been hamstrung by local and statewide scrutiny.

Grey said she hopes to bring more shelter online soon, and that it may even require an emergency meeting of the Austin City Council, which is currently on its summer hiatus ahead of budget season in August.

"We have been very clear ... that we knew one of our challenges was that we did not at that time have adequate shelter capacity to accommodate everyone who might need to move" Grey said. "We are currently working on not only the possibility of sanctioned encampments, but really any good option that provides folks with a safe and dignified place to go."

This year's survey of Austin's homeless population suggested more than 3,100 people were homeless on a given night, with roughly 70% of those people living outdoors. Grey said the city could use the properties it acquired over COVID-19 to shelter some folks. She also suggested the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless could expand its capacity to house more people.

The city-owned shelter reduced its capacity as a result of the coronavirus last year. But even before the pandemic, ARCH reduced its number of beds at Council's direction. In 2019, Fronsteps, the nonprofit that runs the ARCH, did away with its daily lottery system for admission and limited its capacity from 190 to 130 people to ensure their clients were committed to getting into housing.

Copyright 2021 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.