AUSTIN (KXAN) — Starting Sunday through Aug. 7, Austin police officers will issue citations to people living on the streets who have already received a written warning. This is part of Phase 3 of the city’s enforcement of the public camping ban.
This week, the Austin Police Department mentioned a possible solution through a diversion program.
“Even if something led to where we take someone into custody, there’s a diversionary program in the works on that end as well. Ultimately we want to place an emphasis on service connection,” said Lt. Lawrence Davis in this week’s Public Safety Commission meeting.
KXAN asked APD for more details on this program and how it’s different from other diversion programs for things like drugs and prostitution. APD said right now there is no information available, but there will be a briefing on Monday about Phase 3 implementation.
On Friday, just two days before the enforcement takes place, tents still line streets and areas beneath bridges. We checked with local emergency shelters and housing programs, and most are at nearly 100% capacity.
According to the Salvation Army, here’s where their shelters are at in terms of capacity.
- Austin Shelter for Women and Children: Has 81 beds for 23 families and six single women. It’s 100% full.
- Downtown Social Service Center: Has 100 beds at this time for 50 men and 50 women. It’s 100% full. The Salvation Army expects to increase this center’s capacity to 130-150 in August if there are no additional outbreaks of COVID-19.
- Rathgeber Center: Has 138 beds right now for 41 families with children. Not 100% full yet, and has room for four more families. The Salvation Army expects to move up to 212 beds (full capacity) next fall.
Matt Mollica of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) said there are looming concerns about where people can actually go to avoid getting a citation.
“It’s a devastating impact on folks who get tickets and citations. And those can lead to warrants. It really derails their ability to move from their unsheltered scenario into a housing opportunity,” Mollica said. “We know what the rental units are like here. The the scarcity in rental units, the high cost, the tenant selection criteria that’s out there, we’re screening people out of opportunities who end up with having misdemeanor offenses.”
ECHO has its own diversion program that helps people experiencing homelessness reunite with family, and it can also help with money for bills or rent.
“We’re trying to really connect people quickly to a permanent housing option, whether it’s a reunification with family, whether it’s a unit of their own to rent, whether it’s making sure that they don’t end up experiencing homelessness by paying a electric bill owed,” Mollica explained.
ECHO recently tracked back to August 2015 to determine the success of the program through July 2020. In that time frame, ECHO said about 3 in 4 people (73%) who connected with housing through the diversion program were still housed when its team pulled the data. ECHO served 513 people total through diversion from August 2015 to July 2020.
Councilmember Kathie Tovo has the largest homeless population in her district. Her staff explored different areas for designated camping areas, but she said none have panned out.
“I continue to have concerns that we don’t have enough places, enough alternative places to offer people to go,” Tovo said.
She said the city has identified two bridge shelters, and she also hopes emergency shelters can start lifting COVID-19 restrictions on capacity to help those who are unhoused.
“We really need to continue to encourage our private sector to be partners with us. We have some terrific nonprofit partners, housing providers, as well as social service providers,” Tovo said. “But we need really substantial investments from the private sector. At this point, Austin still has a very manageable size population of individuals experiencing homelessness compared to other major cities.”