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As camping ban takes effect, why didn't Austin have a better plan to house homeless?

Ryan Autullo
Austin American-Statesman

Beginning Tuesday in Austin, it will again be illegal for people experiencing homelessness to camp in public, after a citywide vote to restore criminal penalties.

The ban — approved overwhelmingly by voters May 1 — returns the city to the policy it had in place for 23 years before June 2019, when the Austin City Council passed a controversial measure to eliminate penalties for living in many public spaces.

But as the ban goes back on the books, key issues remain unsettled about the relocation options for the unsheltered population. With housing and shelters brimming at capacity, it's likely that many will continue to camp unlawfully in their current location or move somewhere more remote, where it will still be unlawful but less likely to draw the attention of law enforcement.

A man sleeps on the sidewalk at a bus stop on South Congress Avenue near Oltorf Street in Austin on Monday. Beginning Tuesday, it will again be illegal for people experiencing homelessness to camp in public in Austin.

On Monday, the city announced details on its enforcement plan, which it will roll out in four escalating phases. The first 30 days will include community engagement and education, during which the Austin Police Department will provide verbal warnings except in the case of imminent threats to health or safety.

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After the completion of that phase, police will begin issuing written warnings and citations with a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a fine that many people would probably be unable to pay. Then in the third phase, police may initiate arrests and/or encampment clearances for noncompliance after a citation has been issued. Arrests would continue in the fourth phase, although the city says it hopes by then to be able to direct people to alternative campsites and available shelter.

Tents for homeless people and their supporters line the sidewalks at City Hall on Monday.

The city's pace in creating housing options ahead of the election raises questions about what leadership could have done differently in the two years since the council repealed the ban — and whether that timeline was reasonable to execute even with the best of strategies.

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In conversations with a number of people involved with the city's homelessness response, the sense is that city leaders made a mistake in failing to develop a clear housing strategy before or immediately after lifting the ban, and that they struggled to identify available facilities in Austin's competitive real estate market that meet certain living standards.

In the past two years, the city purchased four hotels or motels to convert into housing at a combined cost of about $33 million and backed out of plans to buy another one. It also pulled the plug on buying a building in South Austin to turn into a shelter. It rejected calls to open sanctioned camp sites — believing them to be expensive and difficult to maintain — only to reverse course last week when the City Council authorized Cronk to take a second look at them. 

A homeless woman sleeps on the steps at City Hall on Sunday.

An effort led by the Austin Chamber of Commerce to acquire and operate a 300-bed tent shelter fizzled when the nonprofit it helped create raised just $1.4 million of a $14 million two-year goal.

Moreover, the city went a full year with an interim replacement before hiring a lead official tasked with directing the city's homelessness response. The new leader, homeless strategy officer Dianna Grey, arrived in January. A city spokesman cited the COVID-19 pandemic for that delay but said significant work to address homelessness was being done before her arrival.

"Over the last two years — over the last 10 years — we've never had a single plan everyone could agree to," Mayor Steve Adler said.

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That plan is underway, but it won't be completed until 2024. It was born out of a summit  involving Adler and other city leaders, along with nonprofits and community members, who last month announced a goal to add 3,000 housing units in the next three years. The total cost is estimated at $250 million and would be covered by a combination of public and private dollars. The goal is for the first batch of units, 100 of them, to be acquired by June.

Presented with that plan — plus another shorter-term proposal from the City Council to connect people living unsheltered in four areas to housing — Austin voters decided to take matters into their own hands.

In a vote that unified Republicans with many Democrats and emphasized the magnitude of the crisis, the camping ban under Proposition B passed rather easily, 57% to 42%.

Leading up to the vote, even Adler admitted the camping policy established by the council in 2019 was not working. He campaigned against efforts to reinstate the ban, but the relative silence of four other council members who voted in favor of the repeal with Adler in 2019 — Sabino "Pio" Renteria, Ann Kitchen, Leslie Pool and Paige Ellis — underscored just how strongly the political winds were blowing against City Hall.

Chris Baker, who provides services to the homeless population through the Other Ones Foundation, said it's hard for him to pinpoint why it has taken so long to increase the city's housing inventory. His group operates a state-owned campsite in Southeast Austin commonly called Camp Esperanza. It accommodates 150 to 175 residents but has no available space for people who will be looking for a place to stay under the camping ban.

Likewise, shelters operated by other city partners are at capacity as residents there await openings at sites that provide permanent supportive housing.

"Bureaucracy is the enemy of innovation," Baker said. "I can't put my finger on why it's been so slow. A lot of good people are doing a lot of hard work."

City leadership has taken umbrage to the notion that they have sat around and watched the crisis worsen without helping. Last week, City Council Member Kathie Tovo at a council meeting read from a list of actions the city has taken in the past two years, including contracting with nonprofits that provide shelter and housing, opening permanent restrooms near encampments, and funding behavioral health care services.

Last year, the city allocated a record $73 million to homelessness services, and it has allocated another $60.9 million this year.

A man sleeps in a homeless camp in the median of East Riverside Drive on Sunday.

Last year, 1,879 people in the city were moved into housing — an increase of 8% from 2019. That came as the homeless population increased 11% to 2,506, according to a point-in-time count conducted by the nonprofit Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, commonly known as ECHO. 

An updated count from this year is expected be released next week. Adler said that it's his understanding from speaking with representatives of ECHO that it will not show a significant increase from last year.

"I think it's so important that our community knows we have taken action," Tovo said. "However, we have a lot more work to do."

That work includes the acquisition of more permanent supportive housing, much of it through the hotel-motel conversion strategy.

At its inception two years ago, the plan called for one hotel or motel to go in each of the 10 council districts. But due to limited availability, Adler said some districts might end up having to take on more than one property.

Alex Gale, who is tasked with negotiating those purchases with the city's office of real estate services, said it's becoming difficult to find hotels and motels that not only are in one of the six districts that don't already have one but also meet certain requirements for long-term living such as having separate sinks for cooking and personal hygiene.

More challenging, Gale said, is that property owners are less willing to engage now than they were earlier in the pandemic, when travel restrictions left scores of rooms unoccupied.

"What we're seeing is hotel owners not willing or wanting to sell because they know the market will come back," Gale said.

As of last July, there were 1,016 permanent supportive housing units in the city, which is 4,811 short of the number recommended in a report prepared by a consultant contracted by the city. Hundreds have been added since then.

"We're probably going to have to get the best available option," Adler said. "The least expensive, most efficient, best choice at every stage in the process."

Trae Williams, who said he has been homeless for five years, sleeps on a corner at Interstate 35 and East Cesar Chavez Street on Monday. “Drugs and bad decisions,” Williams said about the reasons for his homelessness.