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New county initiative hopes to provide services to keep homeless, substance users and mentally ill out of jail

A new county diversion center could provide resources for homeless people outside of jail. (Jordan Vongerhaar)

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)."

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.

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.


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