Austin's camping ban returns Tuesday, but it's not clear when — or how — it will be enforced

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Camps set up near the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless in downtown Austin in August. The city is preparing to enforce a new ban on such encampments, approved by voters on Saturday. Credit: Marjorie Kamys Cotera

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After Austin voters decided to force the city to end its policy of allowing encampments in some areas, it’s not clear when police will start issuing tickets against people experiencing homelessness or how quickly the city could remove tents in public areas — but they’re allowed to start doing both on Tuesday.

On Saturday, 57% of Austin voters decided to approve the proposition to reinstate the public camping ban, which city leaders reversed in July 2019. Proposition B, which was put on the ballot after the organization Save Austin Now gathered more than 24,000 signatures, also reinstated bans on sitting and lying in public areas as well as panhandling in specific locations during certain hours.

The responsibility for enforcing the ban on encampments will rest with the city manager, whose office is working with the Austin Police Department to create a strategy by May 11.

“Staff will be evaluating options for how to best implement the new ordinance. We will start with education and outreach, and will focus first on individuals living in situations that present higher health and safety risks,” city spokesperson Andy Tate said in an email. “Outreach will be ongoing as we continue to assess encampment sites and coordinate with our service providers.”

On Sunday, interim Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon sent a letter to his department explaining that officers will be given training and guidance on how the ordinance will be enforced.

“This change will require a city-wide effort and APD is part of a cross-departmental team of City staff who are working together to look for ways to implement the changes in order to address the concerns of all residents in the least disruptive way possible and in line with our City’s mission,” Chacon said in the letter.

The uncertainty about how the new ban will be enforced concerns advocates for people experiencing homelessness.

“Folks experiencing homelessness, they don't know what to expect. I think there's a lot of fear and anxiety around what's next,” said Matthew Mollica, executive director at Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition. “People [who are living in the streets] are going to be exposed to more trauma … And that's not good for them or good for a system that's trying to end homelessness.”

Advocates like Mollica say that in the past, a combination of local ordinances criminalizing homelessness and a lack of services, including housing options, has eroded relationships between people experiencing homelessness and city agencies.

“Any type of aggressive enforcement in which the police are leading that enforcement is a worst case solution,” Mollica said. “It takes time to build that trust when the people are being let down over and over again … Until we're able to do something more intentional with them to impact their lives in a positive way, we're going to continue to see that erosion of trust.”

On Wednesday, the Texas House preliminarily approved a bill that would ban homeless encampments in public places statewide, though it exempts public camps only if local authorities provide law enforcement officers, mental health services and healthcare provisions for those residing in the camp.

Many of the large encampments in Austin are located on Texas Department of Transportation property, but spokesperson Diann Hodges said in an email that the agency is not currently planning any removal operations and that “under-bridge cleanups are the responsibility of the City of Austin.”

Some Austin elected officials, meanwhile, are putting their focus on housing. Austin Council Member Greg Casar said the city’s goal is to create 3,000 housing units for people experiencing homelessness in three years. But that doesn’t solve the immediate problem of what to do about the hundreds of people living under highway bridges, medians and other public spaces.

The city has already bought or planned to buy four hotels for that purpose, but according to the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, if every shelter bed currently available was in use in Austin, there would still be at least 1,200 people on a given night with no shelter or housing option.

“We have to essentially provide that space as quickly as possible. And so that means that we have to try to buy hotels or buy land or put up tiny homes or create spaces as quickly as we can in the city,” Casar said. “The ordinance goes into effect on May 11th and there are not enough places for people to go. And that is what we'll be facing here in a few days.”

In an interview with Fox 7 after Saturday’s vote, Austin Mayor Steve Adler said he hopes the city can use the federal COVID-19 relief funds to “actually get people out of the tents and into a safer place.”

Another temporary solution could be to create designated areas where people can camp and receive services. In 2019, Gov. Greg Abbott allowed an encampment in a state-owned site in South Austin. The site is currently under the supervision of the organization The Other Ones, and residents and advocates said it has become a good temporary option. People living there have organized and christened the camp Esperanza Community.

Max Moscoe, community engagement coordinator for The Other Ones, explained that creating these supervised encampments is not easy.

“Ultimately, the solution to homelessness is to reinvest in public housing and offer wraparound supportive services to people in need of them. Unfortunately, this won't happen overnight: We will need a ton of legislation and investment to make this happen, and in the meantime we need to create spaces like the Esperanza Community,” Moscoe said. “People experiencing homelessness need safe and dignified shelter options to keep them off the streets and out of the elements while they navigate the housing system.”

In an email, Save Austin Now co-founder Cleo Petricek, who pushed for Proposition B, said the city should promote “safe sanctioned campgrounds” that include water, toilets, showers, electricity, a place to store and secure belongings “and most importantly, round the clock security.”

She added that the city council needs to “restore the public’s faith” and avoid allowing either regulated or unregulated encampments within three miles of schools and parks.