As local violent crime rates continue to rise, the Austin Police Department launched a gun crime prevention program in partnership with the Travis County District Attorney's Office on Friday. It will continue through the end of August and aims to increase prosecution of violent offenses by tracking gun crime trends more closely and referring cases to federal law enforcement where appropriate.
Homicides in Austin, mid-April
There have been 23 homicides in the city of Austin this year, compared to 16 this time last year and 9 in mid-April of 2019, according to APD. The most recent occurred on Wednesday evening, when Kedarius Griffin was shot while in his car after a disturbance near the McDonald's at Lamar Boulevard and Rundberg Lane. His passengers—a pregnant woman and four children—were uninjured despite being in the car at the time of the shooting.
As part of the program, APD will work with federal partners, such as the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives Task Force and the U.S. Attorney's Office, to investigate perpetrators of violent crimes, seize illegally possessed guns and increase the number of federal referrals.
Homicides are up nationally, which experts say could be due to myriad reasons, including last summer's protests, increasing gun purchases and the economic recession caused by the pandemic.
"I won't say it's unprecedented, but it's very, very concerning," Interim Police Chief Joe Chacon said during a press conference. "We haven't seen these types of homicide waves since the '90s."
Although not all violent crime involves guns, gun violence is increasing and may involve stolen guns or illegally manufactured "ghost" guns. "I'm just very concerned about the number of illegally possessed firearms and how we can curb that," Chacon said.
In addition to working with federal partners, APD is collaborating with the Travis County District Attorney's Office on this program. District Attorney José Garza took office in January after campaigning on a progressive platform, promising to end cash bail for nonviolent offenders and hold police officers accountable for misconduct. He also said he would focus on violent crime; since January, his office has secured more than 300 indictments for violent crimes, including a first-degree murder charge for APD Officer Christopher Taylor, who shot and killed Mike Ramos last April.
"From day one, our office has been clear that we take violent crimes very seriously," Garza said in a statement.
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Community First! Village, Austin's 'most talked about neighborhood,' will add 1,400 homes for chronically homeless
Local nonprofit Mobile Loaves & Fishes announced plans to vastly expand Community First! Village, a 51-acre master-planned development that is home to more than 220 formerly chronically homeless residents, on Wednesday.
The two-phase expansion will add 1,400 micro homes and 127 acres between two pieces of land—one across the street from Community First! Village on Hog Eye Road in far East Austin and the other on Burleson Road in Southeast Austin—with development starting in summer 2022. The land purchases were made possible thanks to a donation commitment from Love, Tito's, the philanthropic arm of Tito's Handmade Vodka. (Disclosure: Tito's is an Austonia sponsor.)
Mobile Loaves & Fishes has operated Community First! Village, which Austin Mayor Steve Adler has coined as "Austin's most talked about neighborhood," for more than five years. During that time, the social outreach ministry has paid out more than $3 million to residents, who make and sell art and maintain the village.
The expansion consists of Community First! Villages third and fourth phases and will more than triple its size and sextuple its current number of homes, from 240 to 1,900 total. In addition to the coming micro-homes, the village also includes RVs and canvas-sided cottages.
Amber Fogarty, president of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, said the expansion announcement is proof that there is hope despite the city's ongoing homelessness crisis. "We realize there's an intensifying conversation happening in our city right now as it relates to homelessness, and for some it may seem like a dismal situation," she said in a statement. "It brings us great joy to think that today's expansion news means we will bring home many more of our friends who are currently suffering on the streets of Austin."
As residents prepare to vote on a controversial proposition that would reinstate a ban on camping and other activities in parts of the city, Adler said Community First! Village is "a vital and important piece of the puzzle" when it comes to addressing homelessness in Austin and praised Mobile Loaves & Fishes founder and CEO Alan Graham for his vision.
To be eligible to live at Community First! Village, applicants must be chronically homeless, meaning they have lived in a place unsuitable for habitation for at least one year and have at least one qualifying disability; have lived in Travis County for at least one year; and have the ability to pay rent, through social security income, disability benefits or on- and off-site work.
Tim Shea has lived at Community First! Village for five years. (Emma Freer)
Tim Shea has lived at Community First! Village for five years, after three decades of intermittent homelessness, heroin addiction and incarceration. After living in an RV, he became the first person in the country to move into a 3D-printed home, furnished by the Austin-based construction technology company ICON. "I am loving it," he said, citing its high ceilings, big windows and solidity as his favorite features.
The expansion plans are welcome news to Shea. "I'm not surprised," he said. "I just know that more people need to know about it."
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As Austin navigates its homelessness crisis, city voters will decide starting Monday whether to reinstate a ban on sitting, lying and camping in certain areas of the city. Proposition B has drawn impassioned support and opposition and is perhaps the most contentious item on the May 1 ballot.
Austonia sought out clear and brief editorials from either side of the debate. Arguing in favor of Prop B is Cleo Petricek, a Democrat and co-founder, along with Travis County GOP Chairperson Matt Mackowiak, of the Save Austin Now political action committee, which has led the charge to reinstate the camping ban. Opponent Emily Seales is a licensed clinical social worker and advocate with over 20 years of experience working and volunteering in homeless services in Austin and around the country. She is currently on staff at the Sunrise Homeless Navigation Center and is board co-chair of Open Door.
Editor's note: These submissions are the unedited views of their authors. Claims made have not been fact-checked to give the proponent and opponent a chance to speak their minds freely.
Homeless residents have also set up tents along Cesar Chavez Street near Buford Tower, which recently caught fire after a blaze spread from the camp. (Emma Freer)
Pro: Voting yes on Prop B sends a message to council that voters' voices and real solutions are paramount
In June 2019, the Austin City Council rescinded regulations on camping in public spaces. They did so without any serious public discussion and in fact appeared to actively avoid serious scrutiny. The resulting chaos is clear for all to see. Parks and playgrounds impacted by illicit behavior, lewd activities in public, trash strewn in waterways and public spaces, and most critically, assaults on the public and on other homeless individuals.
It is obvious that the homeless are not helped by this misadventure. Vulnerable women and youth in these camps are abused, mentally ill individuals are not served and there is no incentive for substance abusers to seek help.
Proponents of this mess have put forward no credible plan for any short term housing that restores safety—instead they talk about abstract housing concepts that even they acknowledge will take years to develop. This is the mark of narrowly focused activism, not what citizens should expect from elected leaders who promise to serve their communities. At every turn, the proponents of this chaos have demonstrated that they are not capable of fully considering the needs of diverse communities and proposing workable solutions. Instead they simply double down on trying to tell Austin that anything other than their chaos is heartless and inhumane. This is intellectually lazy, and Austin should demand better.
The chaos created by the City Council has resulted in a public outcry culminating in the citizens demanding to be heard by direct ballot. This demand is across the political and economic spectrum. As a co-founder of the Save Austin Now PAC and a lifelong Democrat, I have seen the diversity of people raising their voices in concern for our city.
It's time we turn this situation around and vote yes on Prop B. It sends a clear message to the council that the citizens of Austin must be heard as we work toward real solutions. There are successful models to learn from and some in our own state. But it all starts with voting yes on Prop B starting April 19.
A homeless residents sleeps in the middle of a bike scavenging operation based at a camp under the South Austin overpass. (Jordan Vonderhaar)
Con: Prop B blames homeless individuals rather than providing solutions to societal problems
Austin's homeless population needs help, but Prop B doesn't do anything to solve our city's problems. It simply tells people who are experiencing homelessness that they cannot exist, visibly, in public space. I, too, am worried about the encampments. They are evidence that our strategies to help people return to housing aren't sufficient. But telling people "You can't stay here" without giving them alternatives isn't a solution.
The reason so many people are experiencing homelessness is that it takes a long time to get into housing, even when you do everything right. Shelters are at capacity, we lack deeply affordable housing, landlords can refuse housing vouchers, and housing programs are full.
As a case study, I want to tell you about "Bill," whom I met two years ago. Bill was a veteran, father, former truck driver and person of faith. He was also homeless and unsheltered. Bill had recently suffered a series of strokes and was desperate for both disability income and housing.
Bill and I worked together every single week for 17 months. He eventually was awarded disability and moved into his own apartment.
Bill's situation is typical of hundreds of people who are stymied by our complicated processes and lack of housing. Prop B would not add resources for people like Bill. Read the ballot language. Because Prop B bans "camping," people would have to move around constantly to avoid being cited. All that moving around takes time and energy. People like Bill would have a harder time keeping their appointments with case managers. Unpaid fines from citations build a criminal record—and landlords can choose not to rent to someone with a record. So punishing people for not having housing makes it even harder to get housing. Prop B hurts, not helps.
In this election, Austinites have a choice to criminalize people like Bill or to work toward solutions. Prop B places the blame on individuals rather than recognizing homelessness as a failure of society.Prop B is an inhumane and wrong response. Oppose Prop B, and let's focus on solutions. Learn more here.
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Starting Monday, Austin voters will decide whether to reinstate a ban on sitting, lying and camping in certain areas of the city. Proposition B is one of eight proposed city code or charter amendments on the May 1 ballot, but it is perhaps the most contentious.
Spearheaded by the political action committee Save Austin Now, Prop B is a direct response to City Council's 2019 decision to overturn a 23-year-old ban on such activities. This is the second time the group has tried to get the issue on the ballot since the first petition was ruled invalid by the county clerk for duplicate signatures and other issues last year. Homeless advocates campaigned against the ban, arguing that it criminalized homelessness and led to citations and tickets that prevented homeless people from accessing housing, employment and other resources. Since then, the city's homeless population has grown in size and visibility.
SAN, advocates and council members generally agree that the situation is untenable, but they disagree about the ban's merit. Austinites who are directly impacted—including people who live near camps, downtown business owners and homeless residents—feel similarly embattled, telling Austonia that, regardless of how they plan to vote, not enough is being done to house the homeless.
Word on the street
Lisa Novak bought a condo in the East Riverside neighborhood in 2013, drawn in by its affordability and Guerrero Park. She attributes the increase in camping along the Riverside Drive median to council's decision to repeal the ban. "It turned into open season," she said.
Lisa Novak took this photo of campers along the Riverside Drive median, near where she lives. (Lisa Novak)
Novak worries about the recent spate of fires and how camps affect area business owners and incoming tourists. After her husband witnessed a violent exchange between two panhandlers, the couple stopped walking to their neighborhood H-E-B. She will vote for Prop B and disagrees with advocates who say it criminalizes homelessness. "I'm sorry, but as a member of society there are certain rules and regulations," she said.
Kevin Ludlow's Windsor Park home sits right behind a long-time homeless camp along Little Tannehill Branch Creek. He estimates he has spent hundreds of hours talking to city staff, council members, nonprofits and police about trash and safety concerns.
Ludlow is undecided on Prop B. He thinks a ban will address these issues, but he also feels police could be more responsive to reports of theft, vandalism and other crimes without penalizing campers who are otherwise law-abiding. "There's no winning hand, and I feel it's by design," he said.
Longtime Downtown business Kruger's Diamond Jewelers often has homeless residents camping outside the entryway. (Emma Freer)
David Kruger, fourth-generation owner of Kruger's Diamond Jewelers on Congress Avenue, is similarly ambivalent. Although homeless residents often camp out in his entryway, his issue is with city leadership, whom he feels are incapable of developing solutions. "I'm probably going to vote in favor of it, I guess, but I'd feel better if there was another item that addressed the problem," he said, comparing Prop B to trying to put toothpaste back in the tube.
Christopher Carr, a member of the Austin Homeless Advisory Committee who has been intermittently homeless since graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in the 1990s, is more decisive. A poet who loves opera and has bipolar disorder, he camps near the intersection of 15th and San Antonio streets. When the ban was in effect, he was often harassed by police he says. "You felt like you might have a few seconds before the cops showed up (if you sat down on a sidewalk)," he said.
Christopher Carr attends a meeting of the Challenger Street Newspaper, for which he is a contributor and distributor, outside of City Hall on Sunday. (Emma Freer)
Since the ban was lifted, Carr feels Austin's housed residents have turned against the homeless: "If you don't like seeing all these tents everywhere, why don't you not like the country where this level of indigency exists?"
A stopgap measure
Save Austin Now argues that repealing the ban has adversely impacted public safety, residents and businesses and left homeless people to live in unsafe conditions. Ken Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association and SAN board member, added that the council vote left residents out of the process. "For me, the big issue is 'let the citizens vote,'" he said. "If the citizens vote down Prop B, we'll live with it."
But the May 1 election is likely not the end of this debate. Texas lawmakers are considering a statewide ban on public camping in a clear rebuke of local policy.
Chris Harris, director of Texas Appleseed's Criminal Justice Project and an activist who helped overturn the ban in 2019, argued that the decision has made homelessness more visible, leading to greater investment by the city and nonprofits. "No matter what happens with Prop B or with these bills at the Legislature, our community can't forget about this issue," he said. "We decriminalized homelessness not because we saw it as a solution to homelessness but because we thought it was (an issue of) right-or-wrong."
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