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As Austin's camping ban returns, those experiencing homelessness face an uncertain future

Ryan Autullo
Austin American-Statesman

The same question was repeated at homeless tent encampments around Austin: Are they moving us out today?

Tuesday was the first day in nearly two years with a ban in place on camping in public spaces, meaning anyone living anywhere without a roof over their head was probably doing so unlawfully.

The camping ban under Proposition B, which was approved in a citywide vote May 1, can eventually lead to citations, forced removal of tents and, if necessary, arrests.

But the answer on Tuesday was no: No one was forcing anyone out just yet.

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In a phased enforcement strategy aimed at executing the will of the voters but in a deliberate and compassionate way, city staffers said they will spend the next four weeks educating the homeless population on the new laws rather than taking punitive action.

Citations will not be given until June 13. Directives to vacate campsites won't begin until July 11 — and then only after 72 hours of advance notice. Arrests for noncompliance also can occur on that date, but no one is going to jail unless they have a warrant for an unrelated offense, according to the city. Instead, they will be taken to the Downtown Community Court where they will be connected to a case management program.

Ulies Johnson, who said he has been homeless since 2012, places a sign outside his tent on West Cesar Chavez Street on Tuesday, the day Austin's public camping ban was formally reinstated. Officials said they won't begin taking any enforcement action for at least 30 days.

The educational process began Tuesday, the same day the results of the election were certified. Prop B passed convincingly with 57% of voters in favor of reinstating the camping ban and 43% opposed. About 25% of registered voters submitted a ballot.

At an encampment along East Caesar Chavez on Tuesday, a resident wanted to know if he was still allowed to be there. It was about 9 a.m.  As of that time, the city's Homeless Outreach Street Team — a group including police officers and behavioral health specialists who will visit encampments to meet with residents — had not been there to let him know he could stay for now.

"I need a place to live, but I have nowhere to go," said the man, who declined to give his name.

Another resident said he would probably pack up at some point and relocate to the woods. With area shelters and housing opportunities at capacity, there are few options for him and other unsheltered people to find shelter until the city finds enough beds for everyone who wants one.

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In the next three years, the city, along with partnering nonprofits and organizations, have a goal of acquiring 3,000 housing units. Running parallel to that strategy is a plan hatched by the Austin City Council to explore the possibility of opening sanctioned campsites where people can camp lawfully and receive basic services.

At a news conference Tuesday, City Manager Spencer Cronk vowed to "aggressively and proactively" look for available sites for those encampments. Lucas Massie, of the Parks and Recreation Department, said his department is doing the same.

A woman sits alone with her belongings packed up at a homeless camp at the Terrazas Branch Library on Tuesday. The woman, who declined to give her name, said she recently moved there after a troubling experience with male neighbors at an encampment along the downtown hike and bike trail. But it turned out, she wasn't comfortable around the men at the new site either.

Meanwhile Tuesday, Save Austin Now — the political action committee that pushed to reinstate the ban under Prop B — said the city's phased enforcement plan is a "slap in the face" to voters.

In a written statement, Save Austin Now co-founders Matt Mackowiak and Cleo Petricek noted full enforcement won't begin until 60 days after the ban went into effect.

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"Residents, small business owners, visitors, and Austinites who visit our city parks should not have to wait two more months before this public camping disaster is fixed once and for all," the statement read. "The will of the voters was clear. Nearly 91,000 Austinites voted to reinstate the public camping ban, over the strenuous opposition of the Mayor and nine of ten City Council members. We want the homeless to be in safe and sheltered locations so they can receive services. This wasn’t happening under the public camping ordinance."

At City Hall on Tuesday, people experiencing homelessness continued to surround the block with tents in protest of what they said was an inadequate response by city leadership to the unsheltered crisis.

Taylor Cook, left to right, Monique De La Cruz, Frank Orosco, Maurice Lott, Louise Ho and Danielle Reichman participate in a protest at City Hall on May 3, rallying against the passage of Proposition B, which reinstated criminal penalties for camping in public spaces.

The protesters, who relocated from a number of encampments around town, have been there for more than a week. Organizing the demonstration is the Little Petal Alliance, a nonprofit that assists people of color and transgender individuals by connecting them to therapy and other services.

The alliance president, Danielle Reichman, who is not homeless but is staying outside City Hall in a tent, said it'll be up to the protesters to decide how long they want to stay there. She said some have left already to beat the crowd and stake their claim on land in the woods.

The only interaction from law enforcement Tuesday happened when two officers with the Austin Police Department drove up on ATVs and directed a protester to move his parked car from a construction zone.

Across town, a woman sat alone under a tree with her belongings packed in a suitcase and a Whataburger grocery bag. She said she was preparing to leave the encampment, located outside the Terrazas Branch of the Austin Public Library.

The woman, who declined to give her name, said she recently moved there after a troubling experience with male neighbors at an encampment along the downtown hike and bike trail. But it turned out, she wasn't comfortable around the men at the new site either.

Scarred by those experiences, the woman declined to say where she was going.

"I'm going to follow the birds," she said.