VIEWPOINTS: Plan criminalizing the homeless might harm them and us

Jan 26, 2018
  • By Editorial Board
A group of homeless friends gather their belongings after spending the night sleeping under the overpass between Pack Saddle Pass and Manchaca Road in South Austin this month. The city is working on a pilot program that would allow Austin Police to cite or arrest homeless people staying under the overpass.

We applaud Austin City Council Member Ann Kitchen for recognizing a gap in serving people who are homeless in her South Austin district, then persuading her council colleagues to finance a social worker dedicated to helping people living on the streets.

But Kitchen’s other proposal that would remove homeless people from a neighborhood in her district using trespassing laws – however well-intentioned – is likely to result in criminalizing homelessness and poverty.

That runs counter to what the District 5 council member told us she wants to achieve: Safeguard the neighborhood and help improve the plight of homeless people. Findings by a city audit also dispute the effectiveness of the kind of initiative Kitchen is pushing.

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There are more constructive solutions in proposals by Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Ora Houston that treat not only the symptoms of homelessness, but the causes as well.

For the moment, Kitchen’s proposal is delayed. The council was supposed to take it up on Feb. 1, but the city is awaiting more details. In its current form, Kitchen’s proposal needs a reboot, if not total overhaul.

The American-Statesman’s Philip Jankowski reported that Kitchen’s pilot program would give Austin police jurisdiction to enforce trespassing laws under an elevated portion of U.S. 290/Texas 71, where some homeless people are living.

It is near the Pack Saddle Pass neighborhood, and as Kitchen notes, close to a park and school. Neighbors have complained about seeing an increasing number of homeless people staying under the overpass — and in some cases having bad encounters.

Kitchen told us city staff is working with the Texas Department of Transportation to clear the way for her initiative that involves Austin officers policing state property outside the city’s jurisdiction.

“It’s not about writing tickets under the bridge to clear out the homeless,” Kitchen told us. “We’re not talking about going around rounding up people just because they are there.”

Police have described the program as a means to help connect the homeless with social services. Not everyone buys that — and it’s not supported by findings of a recent city audit.

“The Austin Police Department issues thousands of tickets a year to people who are sitting or lying down in public, or because they are asking for money,” Council Member Greg Casar told us. “Basically, people receive tickets because they are homeless. Many of these tickets turn into arrest warrants.”

He added: “We cannot and should not rely so heavily on the criminal justice system to address homelessness.”

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Casar is right. His concerns are supported by a city audit released in November that found taking criminal action against the homeless had little to no effect in connecting them with services. In some cases, the audit found that police action might impede a homeless person from finding a job or a home.

The audit reviewed a few ordinances related to homelessness that target panhandling, camping and sitting or lying in unauthorized areas. It found that from fall 2013 to fall 2016, Austin police wrote about 18,000 citations under those laws.

The flaws in that approach are seen in outcomes: About 90 percent of those cited failed to appear in court, which led to arrest warrants in 72 percent of those cases, according to the audit, which cited data from the Downtown Austin Community Court.

While Kitchen’s proposal might remove homeless people from one area in her district, it doesn’t get to the root of problems that drive people to the streets or trap them in homelessness. At best, it is a temporary fix that is likely to kick the can down the road, moving homeless people from one location to another part of town.

That is why we continue to support Mayor Steve Adler’s Downtown Puzzle, which would establish dedicated funding to address homelessness – without increasing property or sales taxes. For the first few years, it would generate $5 million a year, but expand to $10 million annually after 2021.

The 10-year plan is based on two key measures. One is increasing the city’s hotel occupancy tax, paid by tourists or those who book hotel rooms, which would be used to finance an expansion of the Austin Convention Center and steer more money to the arts and music. The other key ingredient is establishing a Tourism Public Improvement District — in which hotels tax themselves voluntarily — to generate revenue for homelessness.

Local hoteliers have agreed to tax themselves because they believe expanding the convention center would boost their profits. Dedicating those dollars to homelessness would go a long way in building permanent housing and addressing other social, mental and physical problems homeless people face.

The proposal, unveiled last year, is expected to come back to the council in the fall after the University of Texas completes a study about expanding the convention center, Adler said.

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Houston is offering another solid proposal that would not cost taxpayers: Use empty units, cottages, rooms and beds in state facilities, such as the state hospital and state school in Austin, to house people temporarily. From there, they would be connected to social services that might help break the cycle of homelessness. At the very least, they would be off the street.

Houston’s plan could work to reduce the homeless population in Kitchen’s district. If the state agreed, the initiative would be financed by credit the city has accumulated from the state.

Instead of ensnaring homeless people further in the criminal justice system, Kitchen and her colleagues should pivot to Adler’s and Houston’s plans.