City of Austin audit reveals issues with homeless community assistance

Homelessness: clearly an epidemic in Austin and countless hours are spent at City Hall trying to fix the problem. But are we helping or hurting?

This week the Office of the City Auditor briefed council members on the Audit and Finance Committee after studying the effects of three city ordinances -- panhandling, camping and sit/lie that bans sitting or lying in certain parts of downtown Austin.

Violations are Class C Misdemeanors.

According to the audit, there were about 18,000 citations for violating those ordinances between 2014 and 2016 and about 90% of those citations, the person didn't show up for court. So arrest warrants were issued for most.

"Here's the thing, you get a ticket, you don't have any money so you can't pay the ticket. You can't pay the ticket then the ticket goes to warrant. That means they're going to go and arrest you," said Richard Troxell, President and Founder of House the Homeless.

Troxell says the audit is a good first step in solving a problem.

"You're standing before an employer and you and another person, you have equal skills. Who is the employer going to take? Somebody with no criminal marks against them or you with 15 marks against you?" Troxell said.

Troxell says the same goes for housing. It's a cycle.

The city reports Austin Police have reduced their sit/lie citations by 63%. The auditor says APD's unofficial policy of giving people 30 minutes to move before issuing a citation may be a contributing factor to that

"This has been the product of an ongoing conversation about how best to...one, really increase the safety around the ARCH but not criminalize homelessness and it is a delicate balance you know we have a situation right now where the restrooms may be removed from outside the ARCH because of some of the conditions inside them including needles and things like that," said Mayor Pro-Tem Kathie Tovo during Wednesday's meeting.

Speaking of the ARCH, Troxell has a different opinion than some of his colleagues.

"I never thought it was a good idea to put it in the downtown area. It never was good. It was always a distraction because [of the] negative impact on the businesses, negatively-put conflict between police officers and businesses and individuals," Troxell said.

Troxell says the available federal dollars just won't allow some people to be housed in Austin without assistance. So what do we do?

"If half of them are disabled, let's get them disability checks. Let's start with that so we can have money to pay for some kind of housing. If the other half can work, let's put them to work and let's build a workers hotel," he said.

The audit also points out enforcing the ordinances increases what the city pays to Travis County for holding people in jail.

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