Several community leaders criticized Austin’s response to the growing homeless population during a public safety discussion this week, blaming much of the issue on a lack of adequate services.
Bill Brice, vice president of the Downtown Austin Alliance, said the city has continually fallen short in addressing the issue. He specifically called out the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, or the ARCH, for its inadequacy.
“The ARCH represents one of the greatest failures of our community to address this problem,” Brice told the Public Safety Commission on June 5. “Who would want homeless services in their community when in everyone’s mind’s eye they see what lies outside the ARCH every single day?”
In January, the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, or ECHO, counted 2,147 homeless people on the street. Austin Police Department Assistant Chief Justin Newsom said between 2,000 and 9,000 people experience homelessness in Austin each year.
Despite the large numbers and the year-to-year homeless population increase, the city has not expanded from the ARCH, which has roughly 100 beds available per night.
“In a city of a million people, we need more places for people to be,” Newsom said. “There is always going to be a need for the most sick, the most troubled to have help and services. What we give them is totally insufficient.”
Austin City Council is expected to re-examine three local laws that some say target the homeless population. They include a ban on aggressive solicitation, camping in the public right of way and sitting or laying down in certain parts of the community.
Emily Gerrick from the Texas Fair Defense Project said the ordinances not only target homeless people but are over-enforced and make it tougher for the cited individual to exit homelessness. She said the citations typically come with a fine they cannot pay or a court date their situation makes them likely to miss. Gerrick said the missed court date turns into an arrest warrant, which shows up on background checks for jobs and housing.
Gerrick said some courts have determined similar laws to violate the First Amendment—free speech—and the Eighth Amendment—mandating fair administration of justice.
Chris Harris with Grassroots Leadership agreed with the notion that the city substantially lacks services; however, he said the police department’s enforcement of “ineffective” ordinances drain city resources that could be put toward solutions.
Newsom said the ordinances allow the police department to issue lower class misdemeanors in substitute of a harsher charge. The no camping ordinance keeps police officers from in some instances issuing a criminal trespass charge, he said, and the aggressive solicitation ordinance allows officers to intervene before an assault happens.
Newsom said until the city builds somewhere for homeless people to go, the ordinances are necessary for public order.
“Without [the ordinances], you could have both sides of Congress Avenue—from the river to the Capitol—lined with tents, and all we can do is walk around them because there is no law that says they can’t be there,” Newsom said.
The Public Safety Commission passed a resolution encouraging the City Council to investigate improvements to how the city deals with homelessness. On June 14, the council will discuss a resolution that asks the city manager to develop a project and funding plan to address homelessness and housing initiatives.