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.
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By Jonathan Lee
The Planning Commission was split Tuesday on whether to help save an eclectic lakefront estate from demolition by zoning it historic amid concerns over tax breaks and the likelihood that a previous owner participated in segregation as a business owner.
The property in question, known as the Delisle House, is located at 2002 Scenic Drive in Tarrytown. The main house, with Spanish and Modern influences, was built in 1923 by Raymond Delisle, an optician. A Gothic Revival accessory apartment was built in 1946. The current owner applied to demolish the structures in order to build a new home.'
Historic preservationists, for their part, overwhelmingly support historic zoning, which would preserve the buildings in perpetuity. The Historic Landmark Commission unanimously voted to initiate historic zoning in July, citing architectural significance, landscape features and association to historic figures. City staffers recommend historic zoning, calling both structures one-of-a-kind examples of vernacular architecture.
Tarrytown neighbors have also banded together to stop the demolition. Many have written letters, and a few spoke at the meeting. “How could anyone buy this property with the intent of destroying it?” Ila Falvey said. “I think it’s an architectural treasure.”
Michael Whellan, an attorney representing the property owner, said that the claims made by preservationists are shaky. The buildings are run down, he said, and have had substantial renovations. A structural engineer hired by the owner said any attempt at preservation would involve tearing down and rebuilding – an undertaking Whellan said would likely cost millions.
Whellan also argued that any historical significance derived from the property’s association with Delisle and longtime owner C.H. Slator is dubious. “These men are not noted for any civic, philanthropic or historic impact,” he said.
What’s more, according to Whellan, Slator likely participated in segregation as the owner of the Tavern on North Lamar Boulevard between 1953 and 1960.
A city staffer, however, said she found no evidence to support the claim. “We would never landmark a property where a segregationist lived, or there was a racist person,” Kimberly Collins with the Historic Preservation Office said.
Commissioner Awais Azhar couldn’t support historic zoning in part due to lingering uncertainty about Slator. “Focusing on that factor is not here to disparage an individual or family. It is not about playing the race card. This is an important assertion for us to consider as Planning commissioners,” Azhar said.
Commissioner Carmen Llanes Pulido said that allegations of racism should come as no surprise. “We’re talking about white male property owners in the 1950s, in Austin, on the west side – and of course they were racist,” she said. But she argued that allowing the house to be demolished based on these grounds does nothing to help people of color who have been harmed by racism and segregation.
The question of tax breaks was also controversial. Michael Gaudini, representing the property owner, said that the tax breaks associated with historic zoning would exacerbate inequality by shifting property tax burdens to less affluent communities. City staffers estimate that the property, appraised at $3.5 million, would get either a $8,500 or $16,107 property tax break annually, depending on whether a homestead exemption is applied.
Commissioner Grayson Cox preferred the commission focus not on tax breaks but on whether the structures merit preservation. “To me, nothing in the historic preservation criteria lists, is this person deserving of a tax break or not?”
Azhar, on the other hand, said he plans to propose a code amendment getting rid of city property tax breaks for historic properties.
The commission fell one vote short of recommending historic zoning, with six commissioners in support and three opposed. Azhar and commissioners Claire Hempel and Greg Anderson voted against.
The odds of City Council zoning over an owner’s wishes are slim. Nine out of 11 members must vote in favor, and there have only been a handful of such cases over the past several decades.
What's new in Austin food & drink this week:
- Nau's Enfield Drug closing after losing their lease. Did McGuire Moorman Lambert buy the building, with its vintage soda fountain?
- Nixta Taqueria Chef Edgar Rico named to Time Magazine's Time 100 Next influencer list, after winning a James Beard Award earlier this year.
- Question: From what BBQ joint did pescatarian Harry Styles order food this week?
- Austin Motel is opening the pool and pool bar Wednesday nights in October for Freaky Floats.
- Vincent's on the Lake closing due to "economic conditions and low water levels [at Lake Travis]."
- Cenote has closed its Windsor Park location. The East Cesar Chavez location remains open.
- The Steeping Room on N. Lamar has closed.
- Local startup It's Skinnyscored new financing for its gluten-free pasta business.
- P. Terry's opened a new location in Kyle, at 18940 IH-35.