Most Tickets For Homelessness Result In Arrest Warrants. That Can Make Finding Housing Hard.

Jun 20, 2019

At best, Austin's housing market is unforgiving. Though the city's renters outnumber its homeowners, searching for – and finding – an affordable rental can be hell. If you're transitioning out of homelessness, it's nearly impossible.

The deck is stacked against these most vulnerable renters. Because even with a serviceable rental history, decent credit and enough income, there are no guarantees. If you're transitioning out of homelessness and you've gotten a ticket for behavior related to homelessness, it's a de facto disqualification from getting a home.

The ordinances that ban sitting or lying down on a sidewalk, camping in public and soliciting in public are Class C misdemeanors, punishable by fines of up to $500. The Austin City Council is deliberating whether to scale back the ordinances, leaning on state law to prohibit these behaviors instead.

Opponents of the rules say they criminalize behavior associated with the estimated 2,200 people experiencing homelessness in Austin, while supporters say the city needs to keep the current framework to maintain public safety and health. 

Overall, the citations often go unpaid, or defendants plead out and agree to do community service through the city's diversion court downtown. But more often than not, they're ignored, and people are charged with failing to appear at court. Then, an arrest warrant is issued.

In the last four years, more than half of the tickets for those citations have resulted in arrest warrants.

From 2015 to 2018, 10,529 citations were issued for sitting or lying down, camping or panhandling in public, according to records from the Downtown Austin Community Court. Of those, 6,181 resulted in the issuance of an arrest warrant – nearly six in 10.

Chris Harris, a data and policy analyst with the nonprofit Just Liberty, says those warrants can ruin the prospect of getting housing for people transitioning out of homelessness. A conviction of a Class C misdemeanor could, in some instances, show up on a background check, but a warrant is almost guaranteed to show up.

"Having tickets, arrests and warrants associated with these ordinances, sets people back from the goal of escaping homelessness; it prevents them from getting jobs and housing," Harris said. "And the vast majority of folks are trying to get out of homelessness. They are trying to get services, housing and employment so that they can get a roof over their head and restart their lives."

While there are options like temporary and permanent supportive housing for people transitioning out of homelessness, Charlie Duncan, a policy researcher with Texas Housers, says there aren't enough options. On top of that, affordable housing in Austin is at a premium.

"You've got a lot of demand on kind of a small number of units from lower-income folks – including formerly homeless people – who are all going after the same housing," said Duncan, who also sits on the board of the Austin Tenants Council. "There's just not enough of it."

Still, the city has taken steps to ameliorate that gap, passing a $250 million affordable housing bond last November, which aims to build as many as 3,700 affordable housing units. And earlier this month, City Council set aside nearly $3 million for rental assistance for Austinites experiencing homelessness.

Still, Duncan says, receiving assistance isn't a guarantee. The city passed an ordinance banning landlords from discriminating against would-be tenants on housing vouchers in 2014, but a state law passed in 2015 superseded it. 

As the city seems prepared to scale back its ordinances, Austin police have drastically scaled back enforcement of them. In 2015, there were more than 5,700 citations for the ordinances. Last year, that number dropped to 730.

Harris says he thinks that drop in citations could be attributable to the city's rethinking of the ordinances. Opponents have argued they're unconstitutional, and a 2017 city audit found most went unpaid. Harris said he saw a similar dip in enforcement when the city was considering its so-called freedom city ordinance, which directed police to reduce arrests for low-level offenses.

"We started to see the arrests decline ... even before the law changed," he said. "It would not surprise me if merely the increased attention upon the issue has in some way impacted enforcement, though I can't speak to that directly."

Council could also approve purchasing land for a new homeless shelter and may direct the city manager to find short-term solutions for issues related to homelessness.