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Adrift in Austin


WORLD Radio - Adrift in Austin

City officials in Western states face legal challenges to clearing homeless encampments

Bannister camp in Austin, Texas Photo by Addie Offereins

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: Homelessness and how to deal with it.

Homeless numbers in American cities continue to rise. Residents and business owners are asking city officials to clear out the camps.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Federal case law requires some cities to provide a certain number of beds in shelters before enforcing criminal penalties for public camping. But some cities are pushing back.

REICHARD: WORLD’s Compassion reporter, Addie Offereins, visited a homeless encampment in Austin, Texas, and reported on the legal battles for WORLD Digital.

Reporting producer Lillian Hamman brings us the story.

AUDIO: Hi guys! We're here from Sunrise. We have food and water and bus passes.

LILLIAN HAMMAN, REPORTER: Four staff members from Sunrise Homeless Navigation Center, park in the grass along a busy highway at a homeless encampment in Austin, Texas. Settled on Banister road, staffers call the encampment Banister camp.

SOUND: [Dogs bark, Carmen speaking to a man]

About 30 people are camping in tents and shanties clustered in the woods behind a chain link fence. Smoke hangs in the air from burning car tires helping combat the dropping temperatures. The campers are stable for now, but that could change at any moment. It’s technically illegal to camp outside in Austin.

One woman at Banister camp has been homeless for about two years.

WOMAN: Just kind of all around right here I was on Congress Bridge before the city comes in and they take our stuff. They say this because it's the cleanliness. So we're kind of going round and round with the city.

Kelley Jura-Myrick is Sunrise’s mobile and shelter services program manager.

JURA-MYRICK: They keep sweeping camps and throwing away their things, throwing away their tents. They have to start all over. Throwing away critical documents: birth certificates and anything within their tent gets thrown away if they're not at their camp.

Cities like Austin are struggling to keep their streets clean and safe, while navigating the legal challenges that come with moving people out of public camps. In 2019, Austin ended a 23-year-old ban on public camping in the city. But two years later, they reversed course.

NEWS: Austin police officers can start clearing out campsites and making arrests as phase three of the homeless camping ban takes effect. And this happens as many in the homeless community still don't know where to go if they're moved.

Voters reinstated the public camping ban in 2021 after homelessness increased 11 percent in 2020. But the ordinance has not solved underlying problems like a lack of shelter space and treatment plans for individuals struggling with addiction.

So police often shuffle people from place to place. But some Austin residents say this isn’t enough. Former probation officer Cleo Petricek [Peh-tree-sick] leads the political action committee, Save Austin Now. She says the harms of leaving encampments alone outweigh any problems that come with intervening.

PETRICEK: We need to have accountability. Having them in underpasses or hidden in the woods where women are raped daily, where there's open drug use, you know, fentanyl deaths that happen on a common basis. That is not the humane way to go and that should never have been the plan for any city in the country.

She says it’s also not the lawful way to go.

PETRICEK: We are suing the city for non compliance of following through with not only the city law, but the state law. We have several business owners that have that that were a part of our lawsuit that that have shown damage because of the lack of enforcement.

And it’s not just in Texas. Cities like Phoenix and San Francisco are locked in their own legal battles related to two rulings regarding public camping. One from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and another from the Supreme Court.

Timothy Sandefur, vice president for legal affairs at the Goldwater Institute, explains the two rulings.

TIMOTHY SANDEFUR: It begins with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which, of course, governs the western states, which in a case some years ago, called Martin versus Boise said that it violates the eighth amendment's cruel and unusual punishment clause for police officers to arrest somebody for sleeping on the streets or sleeping on the sidewalks or living in a tent, under the anti camping ordinances, if that person can't find shelter elsewhere.

The Supreme Court case is called Johnson v. City of Grants Pass. In 2022, it narrowed the appeal’s court precedent.

SANDEFUR: Not only can you not punish somebody for involuntarily sleeping on the streets, but we're going to define involuntary to mean, if there are not enough shelter beds available in a city-run shelter, to accommodate the homeless population, then people sleeping on the streets are per se sleeping there involuntarily. So it's a pure numerical formula.

A bipartisan coalition that includes Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Republican lawmakers in Arizona say the ruling leaves a lot of unanswered questions that invite lawsuits from homeless shelters. So in September, they asked the Supreme Court to reconsider Johnson v. Grants Pass to give clarity on things like what qualifies as adequate shelter and what happens when someone refuses to accept shelter?

SANDEFUR: For the cop on the beat, that is confusing. The city has basically told us don't, you know, don't arrest people. Meanwhile, they're breaking the law, and it's causing a lot of confusion for the good faith city officials.

The Supreme Court requested a response from the opposition by December 6. Sandefur believes the court’s request means it’s likely to hear the case.

But even if the justices make it easier for cities to move people off the streets. Local ministries and public officials still wrestle with the root causes of the crisis.

SANDEFUR: For those people who honestly just need a brief hand up, then get them the services they need. And then for the people who are actually dangerous criminals, incarcerate those. There's as many answers to that, as probably as there are homeless people.

For WORLD, I’m Lillian Hamman.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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