New county initiative hopes to provide services to keep homeless, substance users and mentally ill out of jail
Travis County officials announced plans to build a diversion center that will connect homeless people and those with substance use disorders and mental illness to housing, healthcare and jobs outside of a jail setting.
"For the first time ever, the county, the county attorney, the district attorney and the court administration have come together around a single vision to make our community more safe and equitable," County Judge Andy Brown said at a press conference Tuesday morning.
Travis County Court Judge Tamara Needles spoke at a press conference Tuesday at the Woolridge Park gazebo, followed by County Attorney Delia Garza and District Attorney José Garza. (Travis County Judge Andy Brown/Facebook)
The group submitted a Fiscal Year 2022 budget proposal Monday that prioritized the creation of the Travis Center, which would provide community-based preventative services to help divert homeless people and those with substance use disorders or untreated mental illness, from jail.
The Travis County Commissioners Court is in the initial stages of identifying programs, such as the Travis Center, that could potentially be funded by the $247 million the county received through the pandemic relief American Rescue Plan Act, as well as any remaining CARES Act funding. Initial funding for such programs could be disbursed as soon as June, with a second wave to be allocated during the FY 2022 budget process later this summer, according to a Monday memo sent to the Commissioners Court by the county's planning and budget office.
Although funding has not yet been allocated, local elected officials are united in their commitment to a diversion center—and in their belief that the current approach is failing.
"We have turned into a system that is reactive instead of proactive," County Attorney Delia Garza said. "Our jails have really become a symbol of failed policies and of a lack of available funding for the services our families need."
Last week, Garza visited the Harris Center for Mental Health and IDD (intellectual and developmental disabilities) in Houston. The center serves people with mental illness who have been arrested for low-level, non-violent offenses and provides them with mental health services as an alternative to being booked into jail.
"We must stop criminalizing poverty and mental illness and work on real solutions like standing up a diversion center in Travis Co. AS SOON AS POSSIBLE," Garza tweeted on Thursday. "Let us all be brave enough to do the work that really helps people instead of simply pushing them into jails and/or out of (sight)."
Today my team and I took a day trip to Houston to visit the Harris Center. The Harris Center is a successful model diverting people out of the criminal justice system by providing mental health resources out of the carceral setting. pic.twitter.com/3s85QaLKji
— Delia Garza (@DGTCAttorney) April 23, 2021
The diversion center would fit into a host of progressive policy changes enacted in Travis County in recent years, including the 2018 founding of the Sobering Center, which allows intoxicated people to recover in a safe place other than jail or the emergency room. It also lines up with District Attorney José Garza's campaign promises to reform the criminal justice system from the inside.
To my Travis County community: When I asked for your vote, I promised that together we would reimagine our criminal justice system. https://t.co/oDECC6itjQ
— DA José Garza (@JosePGarza) January 29, 2021
Since taking office in January, Garza's office has asked judges to set no-cost or affordable bail for defendants who aren't flight risks and do not pose a threat of violence; expanded pre-trial diversion program eligibility; and prioritized prosecution of violent crimes, securing more than 300 indictments, including a first-degree murder charge for the Austin Police Department officer who shot and killed Mike Ramos last April.
The Travis County Jail is the largest provider of mental health services in the county, similar to jails across Texas and the country. Meanwhile, city residents are in the midst of voting on Proposition B, which would reinstate a ban on sitting, lying, camping and panhandling in certain public areas. "People experiencing homelessness have become pawns of Gov. (Greg) Abbott's political agenda and threatened with jail," Garza said.
He and other county officials argue that diversion programs that offer preventative services will be more effective at ensuring public safety than jail. "True public safety is rooted in the stability of our community," Garza said.
- Austin police seek to increase prosecution of violent gun crime as ... ›
- One year later: Mike Ramos' mother fights for police reform - austonia ›
- Austin searches for new police chief amid reform process - austonia ›
A big-money bird has been stolen from a northwest Austin pet store.
Kelsey Fernandez, the owner of a $6,000 sulphur and citron-crested cockatoo named Lemon Grab, said the emotional support animal was taken from the Gallery of Pets store, around closing time on Sunday.
"I've struggled with mental illness my entire life, and ever since I got him I've been doing so much better," Fernandez told Austonia.
The $6k cockatoo is young and will starve unless he is fed by hand, Fernandez said.
In a surveillance video, a man appears to have something under his shirt as he and two others exit the business around the same time the store believes that Lemon Grab was stolen.
Fernandez said a report has been filed with the Austin Police Department with an $1,000 reward for his return.
- Bike shops report burglaries, putting them thousands in debt - austonia ›
- Does Dirty 6th live up to its name? Here's how crime stacks up in ... ›
- Austin police will no longer respond to non-emergency calls, looking ... ›
- Two carjackings reported in Westlake area, one arrested - austonia ›
- Furever companion: Austonia's complete guide to adopting in Austin ... ›
- Cats get to keep their claws with new Austin city ordinance - austonia ›
- Pet Paradise is coming to Austin - austonia ›
- Austinites are some of the most sociable pet owners - austonia ›
- Seeing double: Pet parents clone their furry friends with Austin-area ... ›
Introverts and personal space lovers may not want to make the move to Austin anytime soon: The Texas capital saw a bigger increase in one-bedroom rent prices than almost any other U.S. city in April, according to a Rent.com report.
Austin's one-bedroom rent has more than doubled—a 112% increase—from April 2021 to 2022, the report said. Only Oklahoma City saw a higher year-over-year increase with a 133% jump.
Austin also had the fourth-highest increase in two-bedroom rent, with a 50% increase in the past year. The city joined a nationwide trend where rents were up 8.3% year-over-year across the U.S, a trend exacerbated by a 6.2% increase in inflation in the same time period.
But "not everyone is experiencing inflation the same way," Redfin Deputy Chief Economist Taylor Marr said in the report, and a brunt of the load has gone to cities with more move-ins. While over 90% of state rental markets increased in the last year, that jump was seen most in Sun Belt states, including Texas, Arizona and Florida.
Even with breakneck increases in rent, however, Austin's rent prices still haven't cracked the top 10: the city's one-bedroom apartments are the 12th most expensive in the nation with an average price of $2,918. Meanwhile, its two-bedrooms fall behind Texas cities Frisco, Dallas and Plano and come out 34th on the list with a $2,302 average monthly rent.
- Austin housing market prices continue to climb in 2021 real estate ... ›
- Austin sees record-breaking real estate year in 2021 - austonia ›
- Austin ranks among top luxury real estate markets - austonia ›
- Austin's housing market is more overpriced than any U.S. city but ... ›