As Austin Rolls Out Its Revised Camping And Resting Bans, The Future Is Uncertain
Every Walls is a company man.
The 73-year-old veteran served in the Army in Vietnam. He follows rules, and he follows chain of command. He also shares a camp across the street from the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH) with a friend.
He doesn't camp on a sidewalk or in front of a business. But he does camp within the area where it's prohibited under the city's new rules that restrict camping, sitting or lying down in public. Yesterday morning, he didn't fully know those rules, or what comes next – and he wasn't alone.
As Austin officially rolled out its reinstatement of bans on camping and resting in some areas Monday, there wasn't a clear expectation of what the future holds – not for homeless Austinites being told to move camps, not for the city itself which faces the threat of state intervention from Gov. Greg Abbott, and not for the agencies that could ultimately handle that intervention.
City staff and police made the rounds Monday morning near the ARCH, informing people they were in violation of the law and that they had to eventually move. The Austin City Council expressly banned camping outside of shelters owned by the city, including the ARCH, on Oct. 17. The restrictions – which also prohibit camping in areas at risk of wildfire and on all sidewalks, as well as camping or resting within 15 feet of an open business or a home – went into effect 10 days after the vote.
The restrictions came after pressure to reverse course on a controversial decision by the Council to repeal previous prohibitions on resting and camping in public in June.
Staff and police collected information from people outside the ARCH to connect them with housing and case management, if they didn't have it already.
Asked if he was going to stay put, Walls was blunt.
"I'm not going nowhere," he said. "Point blank, I'm not going nowhere."
Walls said he understood not camping in front of a business or on a sidewalk, but unless a federal judge told him to move, he wasn't budging. Walls was referring to a federal court decision that ruled in favor of homeless defendants in Boise, Idaho, last year.
That case was part of the reasoning the city cited for its rule change back in June. A judge ruled Boise's camping ban was unconstitutional — that it violated the Eighth Amendment's protection against cruel and unusual punishment, because the city didn't have enough shelter beds and that prohibiting people from sleeping wasn't legal if they had nowhere else to go.
The judge struck down Boise's ban, but the city appealed. Ultimately, the case could go before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Austin currently has 822 emergency shelter beds, compared to a population of at least 2,255 homeless people at its last official count.
Earlier this month, the ARCH transitioned out of an emergency shelter model, reducing the number of beds and phasing out its day services. Front Steps, which operates the ARCH, said it's currently over its 130-person capacity, and that it has 150 clients in its reservation queue, which partly explains the number of people camping outside the facility at Seventh and Neches streets.
"When it gets rainy and cold, you've got to have somewhere to go."
Mayor Steve Adler told KUT on Friday that the reinstatement of the camping ban near the ARCH and the Salvation Army shelter next door is meant to ensure safety and focus on housing people seeking services downtown.
"I think it’s important for us to be able to demonstrate to the community that we can house those folks," he said, "better than dispersing them or hiding them, we can actually get them to better, safer places.”
Walls said he's tried sleeping at the ARCH before, but that he got bed bugs and gave up on the shelter. It's a common refrain from folks around the ARCH, including Janice Ragland, who used to camp outside of the shelter.
While some people are looking for day services like sleeping and case-management, she said, others might deal drugs or prey on people seeking services. Ragland was outside the ARCH on Monday morning looking for those services – and she camped outside the shelter Sunday night just to get them.
She had her Social Security insurance card stolen and needed to get it back before the end of the month, when the rent at her South Austin apartment is due.
Holding a Mylar blanket she used to stay warm, she jangled keys around her neck as proof she had a home. Ragland said she wanted to get to the shelter early Monday to get a new card before her rent's due.
She said she hopes relocating people camped around the ARCH ultimately helps them get into homes like those at the Community First Village, which is run by the nonprofit Mobile Loaves & Fishes.
"Not only clean that up, but give them the keys. Getting them into [Community First Village] ... and more places like that," she said, "not just not talking to them and leaving them to abuse each other."
Supporters of revised city ordinances, including Adler, argue the new rules will help clear things up for police and for the city at large – and that the ban isn't meant to criminalize homelessness.
"What we did last week was not a step backward from what we had done in June," Adler said. "It clarifies what we had done in June. It recognizes that we want to help the people who are most challenged among us, and at the same time we recognize that we have shared public spaces."
Walls said he's all for solutions and that he's witnessed crime around the ARCH.
But as for clarity, he said he didn't have a lot as it related to the new rules. City employees and police officers handed him a yellow flyer explaing the rules as they came up to inform him he was violating them.
APD had handed out flyers ahead of Monday, but they didn't expressly say he couldn't camp where he was. The flyer said he couldn't camp using upholstered furniture like a mattress, which he wasn't. He sleeps in a beach tent with a traditional camping tent inside. He has an inflatable mattress, just in case. And, he thought, it was fine because he wasn't within 15 feet of a business or a house. And, technically, he wasn't on a sidewalk.
But as he gripped the flyer, he traced the dotted square showing the roughly 1.5-square-mile area around the ARCH where camping is now banned, realizing he was in violation.
It was the first he'd heard of the ban near the ARCH.
Asked if he's going to move, he said, he might as well.
"I've got to go somewhere," he said. "I've got to go somewhere. I mean, I'm not trying to buck the system."
City employees told him and others they could camp at the city-owned Emma Long Park – which is illegal under the new rules – or at McKinney Falls State Park. A spokesperson with the city told KUT that was a mistake and wasn't an official city direction.
APD released new guidelines Monday evening that allow for exemptions within that prohibited area, but earlier in the day officers and city staff didn't mention that list of possible exemptions to Walls. The department's training guidelines do clarify limiting structures and dealing with obstructions on sidewalks. The Austin Transportation Department will also suggest roadways on which the city could ban camping.
This week, the Austin City Council will discuss using city-owned land to open up more temporary housing for the homeless. Also, this week is a deadline from Gov. Greg Abbott, who promised state intervention on Austin homelessness. Abbott said, among other things, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) could clear out camps under state roads, suggesting that feces and public drug use at camps have created a public health and safety crisis. (Both APD and Austin Public Health have said data refute that claim.)
As of Monday, the city's Public Works Department, which is responsible for cleaning up underpasses – which was a state responsibility until TxDOT opted out in March – hadn't received any direction from the state. A spokesperson said the department was sharing its cleanup schedule of more than 60 overpasses with TxDOT.
TxDOT itself couldn't provide details but said the Texas Transportation Commission will receive a briefing on encampments this week.
The governor also said in a letter earlier in this month that his office was in talks to assist the ARCH, though Front Steps said it had not yet heard from the governor Monday. Abbott's office did not respond to KUT's request for comment for this story.
So far, Adler said he hasn't heard anything concrete from the state yet either.
"My hope is that the governor's not just going to come into town and scatter people. Because that's going to make it harder to house people, harder for us to maintain public health and the like," he said. "It's a complicated issue and Austin and cities across the state would welcome increased state focus and assistance on this challenge."
Monday morning, Walls couldn't quite say for sure what's next for him, but that he may head east across I-35 for shelter – somewhere out of the way.
"When it gets rainy and cold, you've got to have somewhere to go," he said. "Last year when it was rainy and cold, they were herding us from this place to that place to that place. People get tired, man."
Correction – A previous version of this story misspelled Every Walls' name.