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Camping ban Stage 3: Austin's homeless can be arrested, but police are at odds on where to direct them

(Laura Figi/Austonia)

The city of Austin's phased implementation of Proposition B entered its third stage on Sunday, with police now able to issue citations and arrest individuals who refuse to vacate certain homeless camps. But city officials have yet to identify places where they can go.

Police feel caught in the middle, tasked with enforcing the ordinances but lacking any clear guidance to offer those impacted. "The elephant in the room … is providing a viable location for folks to be able to go," Community Engagement Lieutenant Lawrence Davis told the public safety commission on Tuesday.

Nearly 58% of Austin voters supported Prop B—a city code amendment to reinstate bans on public sitting, lying, camping and panhandling in certain parts of downtown, near East Austin and West Campus—during the May 1 election.

Austin City Council directed staff to identify possible locations for temporary sanctioned camps in each council district in May. But council members pushed back against the options presented to them and failed to issue clear guidance before their annual six-week summer recess, which ends later this month.

For now, Austin police will issue citations to homeless individuals who have already received written warnings for violating the ordinances. Homeless individuals who refuse to vacate camps that have been deemed dangerous, such as those in flood-prone areas or near highways, may be arrested.

As of July 1, police have recorded a 21% reduction in tents and identified 290 homeless residents who are willing to comply with the ordinances voluntarily so long as there is a place for them to go.

(Downtown Austin Alliance)

Meanwhile, city staff are working to expand existing shelter capacity, which has been constrained by pandemic protocols, which could see more than 300 beds open by mid-August, according to a July 1 memo.

In addition, the city opened the Southbridge Shelter on June 15, a former ProLodge that is now reserved for homeless individuals who lived in camps and are waiting for permanent housing. Approximately 20 individuals from the Terrazas Library camp are living at the shelter, which has 75 rooms. The city has also renewed the lease of a second ProLodge shelter using American Rescue Plan Act funds and expects it to open in early August, after repairs are completed.

Staff will next update the council on July 22, including identifying potential temporary campsites. Members mostly pushed back when staff proposed 45 potential sites, citing concerns ranging from transparency, costs and wildfire risks.

This attitude has prompted pushback. Bill Brice, vice president of investor relations for the Downtown Austin Alliance, chastised Austinites who supported Prop B but now refuse sanctioned camps, shelters or homeless housing in their neighborhoods. "Community members cannot have it both ways," he said at the same public safety commission meeting.


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