About two months ago, Miguel Alfonso moved to Texas from the East Coast and wound up in Austin. He was looking for work, and in the meantime was sleeping in his car, which he would park downtown. Then his car was towed. He couldn't afford to get it back from impound, so he began sleeping on the street at night, usually downtown, usually near 6th and Nueces.
By the time he'd been in Austin three weeks, the Cuban-born homeless man says he'd accrued a total of 10 tickets from the Austin Police Department — more than enough to secure a warrant for his arrest. He was cited for jaywalking, for parking illegally and for violating Austin's "No Sit/No Lie" ordinance — meaning, he was sitting or lying down on city streets or sidewalks for more than 30 minutes at a given time. As for the fines he's accrued:
“I haven’t paid them yet,” he says.
In that regard, he’s not alone. Aside from the realities of homelessness, Austinites living on the streets downtown also face costly citations from police for jaywalking, camping and other offenses. But the lion’s share of tickets from downtown police – more than public intoxication, more than jaywalking – are for sitting or sleeping on sidewalks, violating the so-called No Sit/No Lie city ordinance. Those violations have increased over the last four years, and some say they expect they’ll continue to do so as Downtown Austin attracts more tourism.
The Austin Police Department enforces the No Sit/No Lie policy downtown, in East Austin, and in West Campus, and the cases are handled by the Downtown Austin Community Court. The ordinance prohibits lying or sitting on a sidewalk, and officers must give 30-minute warnings to those observed doing so before issuing a citation.
A standard ticket costs $160, plus community service hours. If a defendant doesn’t appear in court to pay the fine, a warrant is issued for their arrest — which increases the cost of the ticket to $210.
More often than not, defendants never pay these fines – nearly 60 percent of defendants this year currently have outstanding warrants, and only 21 defendants out of the more than 15,000 cases from 2011 to the present — that's about 0.14 percent — have appeared before the Community Court, according to court records.
During that same span, only 39 defendants paid their fines outright. However, the court minimizes fines by allowing defendants to pay them off through community service and, in some cases, through jail credit, a system in which time served in jail can count towards payment of a fine. While just over half of the community service hours scheduled for defendants were completed last year, the court is on track to meet its 66 percent completion rate for 2015 after failing to meet that goal in 2014.
The court also offers resources, like meetings with caseworkers, to those with outstanding citations who are trying to transition out of homelessness and to the estimated 450 repeat offenders.
Corporal Chris Carlisle says tickets are given at an officer's discretion and that all APD officers have to abide by the ordinance’s 30-minute grace period, a provision of the 2011 tweak of the law.
Carlisle has been on the beat downtown since 2000 and, he says, before Sit/Lie, APD could only enforce a state law that classifies sleeping or lying on a sidewalk as a Class B misdemeanor, an arrestable offense, to deter people from obstructing sidewalks – a tactic he says wouldn’t do anybody any good.
“If we arrested them every day, it wouldn’t matter. They’d be right back,” he says. “They have nowhere to go.”
The city ordinance classifies the crime as a Class C misdemeanor, which can carry the penalty of fines up to $500 but can't result in jail time. Failure to pay the fine, however, can.
Carlisle says Neches Street, adjacent to the ARCH, is an epicenter for the citations, a claim that rings true in the data provided by the Community Court: One-fifth of all citations from 2011 to 2015 occurred on Neches.
Jo Kathryn Quinn, executive director of Caritas of Austin, says the fact that the law’s essentially only enforced in Downtown Austin is frustrating for homeless advocates like Caritas, Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) and Front Steps, which runs the ARCH, as well as other groups, many of which are located in the downtown area.
“If you think about what happens at SXSW and really big events that are centered downtown … there are, quite frankly, lots of people that are violating these ordinances,” Quinn says. “Yet, these ordinances are enforced only with people experiencing homelessness.”
Records show about a third of the citations are doled out to “non-homeless” defendants, but police officers and the court depend on how defendants self-identify for records. So, in some instances, defendants may give an officer an address, but could still be homeless.
Still, the Sit/Lie law, often categorized as a “quality of life” ordinance, generally targets those experiencing homelessness, Quinn says. And an August memo from the Department of Justice, responding to a case in Idaho, called out cities enforcing the ordinances, saying that “making it a crime for people who are homeless to sleep in public places, when there is insufficient shelter space in a city, unconstitutionally punishes them for being homeless.”
That statement gave Quinn and others pause and led many advocates to wonder if the city’s enforcement of the policy could jeopardize $5 million in funding from U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
“It makes me very nervous because we have a lot of programs. We’re housing essentially 130 people right now with HUD funding that we use for the chronically homeless to get them off the streets,” she says. “And, so, this is exactly the population that is the nexus of this potential altering of the funding.”
In its latest funding availability announcement, HUD offered an incentive to organizations using “specific strategies that prevent criminalization.”
City of Austin Prosecutor Bianca Bentzin says these cases often end in courtroom no-shows and warrants; and they also take up the largest chunk of the Community Court’s docket – Sit/Lie cases crowd out all other offenses in the court – but they can’t be so easily done away with.
“If it’s decriminalized, that will raise another host of issues that lawmakers will have to deal with because, when you’re talking about a downtown area, we’re trying to help people coexist – business owners and residents and the homeless and people who visit our city.”
That coexistence could be fractured if the ordinance was done away with and, as Bentzin says, lead to a domino effect and create issues somewhere else.
That coexistence, and the influx of visitors, also concerns Carlisle, who expects APD’s enforcement to increase in the next year or so, when two hotels – both on Neches near the ARCH – open up. Carlisle says the wider-than-normal sidewalk in front of the ARCH is the only sidewalk on that street as of right now, and he bets APD will be getting a lot more calls to clear the sidewalk over the next year.
“How it’s enforced might change over the next year once those hotels open up on Neches. We’re going to have to make sure there’s a clear passageway all the time, because we have to allow the people that are visiting or staying at those hotels to have a clear walkway,” he says. “They’re not going to be able to walk in the street to avoid this closed sidewalk from everybody camping and living on this sidewalk.”
Miguel Gutierrez Jr. and Pu Ying Huang contributed reporting for this story.