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Politics

Y'all Had Questions About Prop B And Homelessness In Austin. Here Are Some Answers.

An encampment of people experiencing homelessness in North Austin during the coronavirus pandemic.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
An encampment of people experiencing homelessness in North Austin during the coronavirus pandemic.

Austinites are deciding on a handful of propositions that could fundamentally change the way city government functions. But the marquee ballot measure this go-around is Proposition B, which would reinstate criminal penalties for behavior related to homelessness.

Last week, we asked you if you had any questions about the measure. We've collected answers for some of those questions here. Keep in mind, this is a running list. If you feel there's a question we didn't answer, ask away here.

Do you have to live within the Austin city limits to vote in this special election?

Yes, you have to live in the Austin city limits. But the city of Austin isn't just in Travis County. The city extends into Williamson and Hays counties as well. The best way you can be sure you're eligible to vote on this is to check with your county clerk. We've had some folks reach out and say they didn't realize they couldn't vote on this before heading to the polls.

Both Travis and Williamson county clerks offer sample ballot-builders on their websites.

If you live in Hays County, you can call the county's election office at 512-393-7310 or email elections@co.hays.tx.us to see if you're eligible to vote on Prop B. You can find more information on the county's elections site.

If Prop B passes, when would these changes take effect?

If Prop B passes, the ordinances would go into effect as soon as the election results are certified. Usually this takes a couple days, as the county clerks have to certify every single ballot cast in early voting and on Election Day, as well as mail-in and absentee ballots.

Is there a plan to house the homeless if Prop B passes?

In short, yes, but Prop B doesn't offer one.

Austin has had a whole slew of plans to "solve" homelessness over the last 30-plus years. There was one in 1985, another "comprehensive plan" drawn up by a city task force in 1996, another to end chronic homelessness in 2004 and another to end youth homelessness in 2010, to name a few.

The latest iteration of that ongoing salvo to solve homelessness is a 2018 plan approved by City Council and drafted along with the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition. It focused on getting folks in what's called permanent supportive housing, which is housing that allows people to get whatever health or occupational services they need to get back on their feet.

The pandemic threw some kinks into the rollout of that plan — as did the proliferation of encampments — and the city's had to lean on other strategies, like using hotels to house folks on either an emergency or temporary basis.

Another pivot has been the so-called HEAL Initiative, which aims to move folks from encampments near three high-capacity roadways and one near the Terrazas Branch of the Austin Public Library — but only after folks have been connected with housing, the city says.

The idea is to move people to rapid rehousing or supportive housing, but it's a phased approach that's not beginning until this summer. If it's successful, the city could replicate that plan at other encampments.

On top of that, local officials are hoping to use some money from the American Recovery Plan — as much as $400 million between the city and the county — to specifically reduce homelessness, with the hope that maybe a larger investment on the part of Austin and Travis County could spur more private donations.

The city also recently laid out a plan to acquire 3,000 housing units in the next three years, but it's not long on details — or at least the how of how it would bring those units online. The plan, as reported by the Austin Chronicle, hopes to provide subsidies to landlords to lease housing for chronically homeless folks and build out new developments focused on permanent supportive housing.

Does Prop B say what the punishment is for violating the ban?

The short answer on this one is it doesn't say anything, at least not on the ballot.

The petition language put forth by the PAC Save Austin Now does lay out the specifics, but you're not going to get those specifics at the polls.

Violations for each of the three ordinances are Class C misdemeanors, which are not typically arrestable offenses, though Austin police officers can use their discretion if there's an immediate public health or safety threat. Class C tickets are up to $500. These tickets run through a diversion court, the Downtown Austin Community Court.

From 2015 to 2018, the last three full years these ordinances were enforced, the glut of those tickets went unpaid or resulted in warrants. All told, 6,210 of the 10,522 cases resulted in warrants — 59% of cases.

Nearly 120 people completed a deferral program, while only 31 people paid fines outright.

A sizeable portion of folks' cases were dismissed through plea bargains — nearly a quarter. Taking a plea bargain may result in someone not having to pay money for the fine. Still, they have to pay — whether it be by doing community service and engaging in case management programs or other assistance offered by the court. That plea bargain could also result in them serving jail time in lieu of paying a fine.

How would police enforce rules about people lying or sitting in the areas in which that's prohibited? Would they ticket them?

Austin police could go back to ticketing folks for sitting or lying down in the prohibited area in downtown, West Campus and just east of I-35. They could also issue tickets for camping anywhere not sanctioned as a campground by the Austin Parks And Recreation Department and for panhandling within the city limits between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.

Back when these ordinances were in effect, tickets for violating the resting ordinance — known as "no-sit no-lie" — accounted for the lion's share of violations for behavior related to homelessness, or 55% of the more than 10,500 tickets between 2015 and 2018, according to the Downtown Austin Community Court.

It's worth noting the city's current ordinances do ban some of that behavior. There's still a ban on camping on public land; it's just relegated to parkland. There's no camping or resting near the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless. And asking folks for money in a manner that's deemed "aggressive" still runs afoul of city law.

But the rules are not largely being enforced. Only 12 tickets were issued in the last nine months for all three of those violations, according to the DACC.

It's also worth noting, when these were in effect, those tickets don't necessarily end up with arrests. Only three cases resulted in arrests between 2015 and 2018, according to the DACC.

Just before the 2019 rollback, APD began ticketing folks less and less, but former Police Chief Brian Manley argued then — as Save Austin Now does now — these tickets were a deterrent and that 95% of folks complied with officers when they were told they were in violation of the bans.

To reduce tickets and arrests, the city set up a multi-departmental team of social workers, case managers, medical personnel and police officers known as the Homeless Outreach Street Team, or HOST, in 2016.

HOST helps connect folks in crisis with health care, mental health treatment and, ultimately, try to divert them from an emergency room or a jail cell.

Per the city's last update, they diverted 110 people from jails in the 2019 and 2020 fiscal years and 335 people from emergency rooms in that same timeframe. All told, they served 2,110 individuals over that time period, as well, meaning they helped get them immediate care or transportation or other resources to divert them from getting a ticket or getting arrested.

What is the cost of Prop B and clearing up camps?

It's hard to say how much Prop B could cost, but clearing encampments is something the city's been doing for a minute now.

All told, the city's spent nearly $2 million on multi-year cleaning contracts within the last calendar year, according to a city spokesperson.

Three departments — the Public Works Department, Austin Transportation and Austin Resource Recovery — are operating under a 2020 contract with Relief Services for $570,000 through July. That contract will come up for review by council in July.

Longer-term, City Council OK'd a $1.2 million contract with another contractor, Enterprise Professional Services and the Watershed Protection Department in March. That contract could last up to five years.

Has the volume of the homeless population gone up?

Yes.

Austin saw its highest increase in the number of folks experiencing homelessness in the last 10 years during the last count of homeless Austinites in 2020. There was also a 45% increase in Austinites experiencing unsheltered homelessness.

In any given day 2,506 people experience homelessness in Austin, according to that count. But this isn't an exact count. It's a volunteer-based, one-night canvass of the homeless population required by organizations handling federal funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In Austin, that's ECHO.

Service providers also consider the number of folks who may be at risk of homelessness. People in need of housing assistance or other services may reach out to a nonprofit that does that, and then they get connected to whatever they need. ECHO handles that data. Roughly 9,500 Austinites requested help last year, according to ECHO.

Still, some of those 9,500 folks who requested services may have been at risk of homelessness — and not necessarily homeless at that moment — and they may have received assistance to get them housing stability.

So, while ECHO would prefer the point-in-time count as an official number, it's somewhere between those two numbers, which speaks to Austin's ever-present affordability issues.

Are there any other cities Austin can look to as an example of how to reduce homelessness?

Houston is the best example in Texas and even nationally. Homelessness in the Houston area has dropped by 55% since 2011. At the time, Houston had one of the largest homeless populations in the country. The city was designated a priority for funding by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Mike Nichols heads up the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston, which is the counterpart to Austin's ECHO. Nichols said service providers, the city and county leaders made those strides by housing the most vulnerable folks living outdoors — the most chronically homeless — with that federal money.

They revamped how they house folks by creating housing first-focused programs. They also started to begin to use fewer local dollars for housing and leaned more on that HUD money and private philanthropy to fund supportive housing and services. Local money fills in the gaps.

Nichols says that housing and the services that come with it cost around $18,000 a year per person.

Still, Houston has an ordinance that bans camping; however, it's enforceable only if there's available housing for folks, Nichols says. Case managers and service providers go into encampments prior to any enforcement and lay the groundwork to connect folks with housing, similarly to the city's HEAL initiative.

"We think we're on the cusp of knowing how to solving this. And it's a major effort. It means telling them at the end of six weeks, police are going to come and clean up the encampments and we're going to offer you housing," he said. "And what we've found was that when people offer housing, not a shelter, not emergency shelter, not temporary shelter, but a place to live ... they go there."

Nichols said 22,000 people have been housed since 2011 in the Houston area, and that according to recent data, 90% of folks remain in housing.

Still, there are obstacles to recreating Houston's success in Austin.

As far as developing new housing, Houston is a city without zoning, which makes it easier to build new properties more quickly. Austin has been straining to rewrite its land code for years, with an eye toward allowing more multi-family developments.

During that time period, Austin area real estate prices have soared continuously. As far as repurposing sites for housing, there's the issue of neighborhood pushback or buy-in. The City of Austin has been repurposing hotels for transitional, emergency and supportive housing over the last year and a half, but it's been met with resistance by neighborhood associations after the city rushed purchases and residents didn't feel they were given notice.

As far as more macro solutions to all this, Nichols says the financial burden associated with homelessness — in Austin and statewide — could be ameliorated if Texas were to expand Medicaid. That money, he said, could at least cover expenses for emergency care of homeless folks, but other cities and states have used the money to house people experiencing homelessness.

That expansion seems unlikely this legislative session.

How do folks experiencing homelessness feel about Prop B?

When Marcus Scott got to Austin eight months ago, he mainly stayed outside the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless. Now, he's getting help from the Salvation Army, which he says is getting him connected with housing. Earlier this week, he was hanging out with some of the folks he met outside the ARCH before heading off to one of the two bars he's been working at on Sixth Street while he's trying to get back on his feet.

He says ticketing homeless folks isn't the way to go, that the cost may not seem like much to people who aren't homeless, but it's a fortune for those who are. They don't have people out here, he says, they don't have a support system.

"It's not no small ticket," he said. "They're trying to hit us over the head for tickets ... having us go to court. Instead of y'all trying to help us get into a place to live, you want to write us a ticket. That's not right. We're going through rough times."

Down the street, Ricky Mitchell was finishing up a shift at a shower trailer run by The Other Ones Foundation, a nonprofit that helps homeless Austinites and employs people who are either homeless or transitioning out of homelessness.

Mitchell is a veteran, and he's been to prison. He said he struggles with suicidal ideation since his wife left him, which has been a huge obstacle for both his sobriety and his ability to hold down his job with The Other Ones.

He's also about to be evicted from a group home where he's been living for a while off Rundberg Lane.

In the next week or so, he fully expects that he'll be camping.

Still, he thinks Prop B should pass, because it would help reduce some of the violence he's seen at camps.

"These people driving by right here, they only want to do the right thing. So I can't fault them for the proposition. I won't," he said. "I can understand, because how do we clean it up? How do we help each other? How do we get them to understand, and me to understand? Especially someone [who's] an ex-con like me? How do you get me to understand that anyone cares? Because I feel like I'm dirt."

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