Austin officials said June 15 their phased approach to implementing Proposition B is moving ahead as planned, and options ranging from designated campgrounds to expanded shelters are being considered to address a looming housing need among the city's unsheltered population.
The monthlong second phase of Proposition B's enforcement officially began June 13. During the first phase, between May 11 through June 12, Austin Police Department officers and representatives of the Austin Homeless Outreach Street Team, or HOST, visited dozens of encampments in the city to inform homeless residents of the imminent need to relocate. That first phase was billed mainly as a period for education and outreach only, despite Proposition B's laws becoming fully effective as of May 11, and the city's plans for the second enforcement phase running through July 10 now centering on handing out written warnings or citations for repeat offenders.
During the June 15 briefing, APD interim Chief Joseph Chacon said no arrests or citations had been issued during Phase 1. Nearly 400 written warnings for camping have been distributed so far, he said, in a process that will increase over the coming weeks alongside continued communication with those experiencing homelessness.
“As we continue with this phase, our efforts with education and outreach remain, and officers will be issuing, in this phase, both written warnings and for those that have already been warned, they may issue citations," Chacon said. "If they come across any situation in which the person who is camping is in imminent danger, or they present an imminent public safety risk, as we do in all phases of this approach, they can take immediate enforcement action, and that includes removal of that campsite, citations or arrests."
Chacon also said the city is "strongly urging" campers to begin downsizing or moving before citations and arrests pick up during the planned third and fourth enforcement phases in July and August. Along with that appeal, however, Austin and the APD have not yet identified temporary housing options to share with individuals experiencing homelessness.
"We knew one of our challenges was that we did not at that time have adequate shelter capacity to accommodate everyone who might need to move. ... We are actively working on not only the possibility of sanctioned encampments but really any good option that provides folks with a safe and dignified place to go," Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey said.
Grey added that, in addition to city staff's as-yet fruitless search for sanctioned campsite locations, the expansion of shelter capacity and the conversion of COVID-19 Protection Lodges into bridge shelters remain under consideration as options for temporary residence as encampments are cleared away. An update on that short-term housing selection process is expected in writing during City Council's summer meeting recess, and Grey said she expects a final plan to be announced ahead of the start of the fourth phase of Proposition B enforcement.
“Realistically, yes. I think that we will be able to indicate the direction that we’re taking [before August]. Whether or not we are ready to open doors on day one will remain to be seen, but we will confirm that as we’re able to solidify relationships, et cetera," she said.
While council is on a weekslong break from their regular meeting schedule, Grey also said council members have expressed a willingness to gather if required to jump-start any temporary housing offerings prior to late July.
Austin's briefing on enforcement of its municipal camping ban came hours before Gov. Greg Abbott signed House Bill 1925 into law, adding new state oversight to local considerations regarding public camping and homeless housing. Public camping and the establishment of sanctioned encampments in public park will now be banned as of Sept. 1, potentially limiting the city's options for locating such sites.
Following the city's June 15 press conference, District 4 Council Member Greg Casar said he supports the exploration of indoor shelter options for those currently living in encampments due to factors including shelter facilities already in place and rising summer temperatures. However, he also said there will not be enough short-term housing available regardless of the city's approach given the scale of the local homeless population and the likely outcome of those on the streets "getting moved from one neighborhood to another" as enforcement expands.
"Everybody has known throughout the entire Prop. B campaign, for years, people with expertise have known that you are not going to develop spaces for hundreds or thousands of people in the course of just a few weeks. So the question is, can we do some? And my expectation and hope is that some does get done here in the coming weeks," Casar said.
District 6 Council Member Mackenzie Kelly, the lone City Council representative to voice support for Proposition B this spring, said she is encouraging community members to reach out to the city with suggestions on possible housing solutions as evaluation continues. She also said she believes the May 11-June 12 education phase went well and that more time is required to successfully roll out enforcement.
"The city’s four-phase approach is reasonable. It may seem like a long process, but it is necessary to educate and warn our unhoused neighbors before we begin enforcing Prop. B," Kelly said in an email. "These camps did not get here overnight; it will take time to clean them up in respectful and humane way."
City officials also took time during their June 15 enforcement update to comment on the clearing of some tents and campers around City Hall on June 14, which Chacon and City Manager Spencer Cronk said was not characteristic of how responses related to Proposition B laws will typically play out. Rather, they said APD-led clearings and arrests were tied to the City Hall encampments' statuses as protest sites, the issues of trespassing on the building's north side and an upcoming construction project along West Cesar Chavez Street.
“We’re always looking to have the least impactful interactions that we can with people, and to educate, to have good communication, to de-escalate situations whenever we can. Ultimately in some cases, we may have to make some arrests. This is part of the overall plan, and whenever possible we’re going to take those people to Downtown Austin Community Court. In the case yesterday where it doesn’t fall within that purview, then those individuals may have to go to jail. But we’re hoping that that’s going to be a minority," Chacon said. “I’m still looking at everything that happened yesterday, but my understanding is the officers did a good job.”