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Austin's homeless camping ban takes effect—but not quickly enough for some proponents

Tents have been pitched outside of City Hall in protest of the passage of Prop B, which bans sitting, lying, camping and panhandling in certain areas, including downtown. (Laura Figi/Austonia)

Austin's camping ban is back. After being lifted by City Council in 2019, the ban takes effect again today, after nearly 58% of city residents voted to reinstate it in the May 1 election.

The city of Austin announced a multi-phase plan to implement and enforce ordinances related to Proposition B, which will reinstate bans on camping as well as sitting, lying and panhandling in certain areas downtown, in West Campus and in near East Austin. Arrests will not occur until at least July 10 and will only be used as a last resort, Austin Police Department Interim Chief Joseph Chacon said during a press conference Tuesday.

Save Austin Now, the local political action committee that spearheaded Prop B, has called on the city to enforce the camping ban and related ordinances immediately. "Disrespecting the will of the voters in this way is a 'slap in the face' of the nearly 91,000 Austinites who demand their city become safe and clean again for everyone," co-founders Matt Mackowiak and Cleo Petricek said in a statement Tuesday.

During the first phase of the implementation plan, city officials and police are focused on education and outreach, making sure homeless people understand the new ordinances and where they can access social services. Other than voluntary compliance, they do not expect to require people to move during this period. "We are laser-focused on addressing homelessness in a safe and humane manner," City Manager Spencer Cronk said at the same event.

Ray Stansberry moved his tent outside of City Hall four days ago in hopes that he could draw some attention to his case: he's been on a local waiting list for housing for seven months and even attended a virtual tour of Community First! Village, a development that is home to more than 220 formerly chronically homeless residents. But he recently received a letter saying his application for a housing voucher was missing some documents, so he remains on the streets. "That's on me," he told Austonia.

Stansberry didn't know when the police might start issuing citations or making arrests related to the newly reinstated bans. For now, he plans to keep looking for work, which he said has proven difficult because of a criminal record and a leg injury. He is also on shelter waitlists in San Antonio and Houston. If all else fails, he'll move to Florida. "Sometimes you just got to go to a whole new location," he said.

The point-in-time count, an annual census of the city's homeless population conducted by the Ending Community Homeless Coalition each January, found 1,574 unsheltered homeless people in Austin-Travis County in 2020. The 2021 count was canceled due to concerns about the pandemic.

Local elected officials and homeless service providers have expressed concern about where homeless people will go.

Council members voted unanimously on Thursday to direct the city manager to develop a plan and budget for temporary encampments, including 10 possible sites, one in each council district. Council Member Kathie Tovo, who sponsored the resolution, said such sites are critical with the city's emergency shelters and Camp Esperanza, state-run campsite off of Hwy. 183 near Montopolis, at capacity.

Members also voted to adopt and fund the Homeless Encampment Assistance Link, or HEAL, initiative in early February. The $4.3 million plan aims to connect around 100 homeless residents at four major camps with housing or shelter by the end of August.

These efforts will take time, however. In the meantime, ECHO Executive Director Matthew Mollica told Austonia last week that homeless people are left without a clear, legal option: "There is no place for them to go."

This story has been updated to include more details after a noon press conference with city officials and a statement issued by Save Austin Now.


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