This Ain't No KOA

Don't Let the Tent Flap Hit You on Your Way Out...

Michael Urubek says the city council is dreaming if it thinks the new encampment ordinance will succeed in solving the homeless problem. His view may not sound radical until you know who he is: Urubek is the Austin police lieutenant in charge of fielding questions about the city-wide camping ban. As spokesman for the municipal entity responsible for enforcing the new ordinance, Lt. Urubek knows he's supposed to toe the party line about how the new law will aid police in cracking down on the homeless population. But the man just can't seem to lie.

"What were the city council's expectations after this [ordinance] was passed? The police department is not targeting the homeless. We don't have the staff to round them up or the room to put them away," Urubek huffs. "Maybe the council should have thought this through a little more."

Urubek likens the council's action to a political game. "[The councilmembers] said, `We'll talk our game; we've done our job [by passing the ordinance]. And now we are not going to have homelessness anymore,'" he says. "But the only problem is, it's not going to work in the long run... [Violators] will go in court one day and come out the next."

Therein lies the crux of the problem: How do you get Austin's estimated 6,000 homeless people off the streets? Do you put more resources into drug treatment and job-training programs, as homeless activists advocate? Or do you take the city council's approach and try to make Austin a less desirable stopping place for transients? And if you do enforce a camping ban, will it actually succeed, and is it legal?

Some of Austin's homeless want help, desperately. But a great many say they are content with life on the streets. After all, it's a free country. But when do their rights to access public property infringe on the rights of taxpaying residents to enjoy the same stretch of land?

On Thursday, January 25, the first day that the ordinance went into effect, making it a Class C misdemeanor for an individual to sleep, store personal belongings, cook, or build fires in public areas, about 200 people gathered on the steps of the Capitol building to protest its passage. Among the activists, reporters, and undercover police officers present were scores of Austin's homeless population, ranging from the bearded "old-timers" who have hopped trains from town to town for the last 20 years, making the greenbelts of Austin home during the mild winters, to the teen-aged, tattooed "crusties" who hang out on the Drag on Guadalupe Street across from the University of Texas day and night, smoking and panhandling.

One young homeless man wearing an army jacket addressed the audience with a few loud, angry words that summed it up for many in the crowd: "We don't fuckin' deserve this fuckin' shit. We have to eat. We have to sleep. We have to shit. You can't take that away from us."

To the dismay of several ordinance protesters, a drunken homeless man took that anger a step further with a message even the least paranoid would find offensive. "We [homeless Vietnam veterans] are trained killers. If the revolution goes down, we'll take you out. I'll kill you without thinking about it," he slurred. "There ain't enough cops in this damn town to handle us."

But most of the demonstrators were a peaceful lot. Speaker after speaker talked about the unfairness of an ordinance that they say makes being poor a crime. Homeless advocate Amy Edwards tried to explain why many fear those who live on the fringes of society. "Homelessness is like a mirror. We know who the victim is -- the homeless. The victimizer is all of us who turn them away," she said. "We turn them away because we are afraid to see ourselves."

Among the "mirrors" to which Edwards was referring is "Meek," 24, a college dropout who travels around Canada in the summer but hops trains to Texas when the weather turns cold. Meek is good-looking, and, along with a confident smile, sports a backwards baseball cap and earrings on both ears. He says he lives outdoors by choice, and likens the homeless society to a "self-sufficient Utopia" whose members rebel against mainstream norms. "They don't mind being dirty. They don't care if their clothes stink," he says. Meek believes the Drag is enhanced by the presence of homeless people. "If the cops did wipe out everyone off the Drag -- the place wouldn't be the same, and I think a lot of the [UT] students would miss that," he says. "[The homeless] add a certain part of society that's different from theirs. A lot of these kids are really artistic."

But not everyone appre- ciates the bohemian allure of the street people along the Drag. The homeless leave trash and rotting food in front of churches and in doorways. Business owners have complained for years that their intimidating presence interferes with customers and tourists. They say that panhandlers often go beyond simple begging -- glowering and hurling insults at those who don't comply. In what homeless advocates would surely call bad timing, on the day before the ordinance went into effect, four transient youths were arrested for attempting to rob a female UT student on the Drag, according to a police spokesperson. The woman was reportedly beaten and kicked by up to 10 youths after she refused to hand over her purse.

So perhaps when Mayor Bruce Todd first proposed the ordinance last summer, he saw it as a way to appease merchants who have clamored for years for aid in protecting their customers from offensive behavior, annoying begging, and physical intimidation. However, during council meetings where discussions about the then-proposed ordinance took place, Todd, who refused to comment for this story, cast the measure as a way to reclaim public parks for Austin's taxpayers. He said the land on which the homeless camp should be accessible to everyone. (Odd that on the day the ordinance went into effect, the Parks police announced that officers would no longer patrol the deep recesses of the park; instead they would stick to the trails. If that isn't an invitation for the homeless to quit the city's more public places in favor of the parks, what is?)

Councilmember Max Nofziger, who spent time as a transient in the Seventies and in 1989 proposed building a homeless shelter near Town Lake, disappointed many constituents when he backed the mayor's ban. At a council meeting last July he announced: "I don't want Austin to be the homeless capitol of the world." The final tally on the ordinance had Todd and Councilmembers Ronney Reynolds, Nofziger, and Gus Garcia voting in favor; Jackie Goodman voted against. (Eric Mitchell abstained, and Brigid Shea was absent.)

Another city that, like Austin, has gained nationwide attention for defying its reputation as the liberal bastion of its state by cracking down on the homeless is San Francisco. City leaders there launched a campaign two years ago to ticket homeless people for some of the same offenses detailed in Austin's new ordinance. According to an article in the Washinton Post on January 1, the move was widely criticized as having little impact other than wasting police resources and inconveniencing homeless people. Police issued more than 27,000 tickets with little effect. "Several million dollars have gone down the drain so this mayor's office can give the business community the perception they're addressing the problem, by having fewer homeless people visually present," Paul Boden of the Coalition on Homelessness told the Post.

At the rally on the first evening of the enforcement of Austin's ordinance, Fort Worth Star-Telegram and syndicated political columnist Molly Ivins spent the night in a sleeping bag on a Congress Avenue sidewalk with local musician Steve Fromholz and 85 other protesters. "You cannot solve homelessness by getting people out of sight or by just sweeping them off the streets," Ivins said while young activists, somber gaunt-faced men, and happy drunks milled about the sidewalk, some clutching "House the Homeless" and "Honk for the Homeless" posters.

"If you own a store and some drunken person pees on your sidewalk or if he is harassing people, there are already laws against that," Ivins said. "Some of these people are alcoholics, mental cases, and some are just damn poor, but don't tell me those guys who line up [at the labor corner] don't want to work... How could you give somebody who's homeless a $500 ticket? If they had that, they wouldn't be homeless."

Jose Martinez, executive director of the Downtown Austin Alliance, which represents businesses in the downtown area, says that Austin's ordinance is necessary to pave the way to cleaner streets and to promote a more user-friendly downtown experience for shoppers and tourists. He commends the council's actions supporting the Alliance's downtown security measures. "This ordinance sends out a clear message to people who choose to sleep in our right-of-ways and public sidewalks that we will not stand for it."

Police in Austin have yet to embark on an all-out push to write citations, and Lt. Urubek says they have no plans to do so. He worries that the council is throwing the homeless problem into the laps of the police, who are ill-equipped to solve it. The police department, he says, views the camping ban as just another ordinance -- no more, no less. "This ordinance is not a tool for us to clean up anything," he says. "It's just something to assist us in special situations, such as removing somebody who's lying around a business."

Not, he notes, that there weren't ordinances dealing with the problem already in place. According to assistant city attorney Deborah Thomas, among the ordinances police can use to curb the actions of Austin's homeless are those that ban urinating and/or defecating in public, littering, drinking alcohol, and carrying open containers in certain areas, lighting fires, and begging in public places. In fact, there was already an ordinance on the books making it illegal to sleep in public places until the recent camping ban replaced it. "In the past, if we wanted to target the homeless, we could have easily found them all in violation of an ordinance," Lt. Urubek says. "But we have not done that to this date. If they end up in jail, they'll just bounce back out."

The Alliance's Martinez counters that the ordinance does give the police greater authority. "This gives the police more confidence to enforce a policy of `zero tolerance' with habitual offenders," he says.

But some homeless people, such as Dwight, who would not give his last name, say the police stand little chance of getting rid of them. On the night of the anti-ordinance rally, the shaggy-haired Dwight doused his nightly fire at "the horseshoe pit," the homeless camp near the railroad tracks off the intersection of Barton Springs Road and Lamar, and headed down the tracks to a more out-of-the-way place to sleep. "The police came in last Wednesday and put up an eviction notice [at the camp] and told us that when the ordinance goes into effect, move on," Dwight says. "Next week we'll just patch it up and climb back in."

Dwight is one of the working homeless, performing day labor for any contractor who will have him. He used to work on oil rigs in the panhandle until he broke his back in 1979. After a long stint in the hospital, he says, he lost his job. He says the money he makes now covers food and clothing, but not much else. "If I did get arrested [for violating the ordinance], I'd just have to sit it out in jail," Dwight says, shifting the sleeping bag slung across his back. "If the citizens of Austin want to pay taxes for me to have a warm bed and a bologna sandwich, it's up to them. They are making it illegal to be poor."

In addition to the question of enforcement is the question of legality. Critics of the ordinance say it's simply unconstitutional, and will cost taxpayers a bundle to defend. Cecilia Wood, attorney for House the Homeless, Inc., an education/advocacy organization, points out that a similar ordinance barring sleeping in public places in Dallas was struck down by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals because, the court ruled, it punishes a certain segment of the population for their status rather than for their conduct. According to the court's opinion, "As long as homeless persons must live in public, their sleeping may not be constitutionally criminalized." Dallas is appealing the decision.

Santa Ana, California, fared better with its anti-homeless measure, which assistant city attorney Thomas says was the model for Austin's ordinance. After a trip through the lower trial and appellate courts, the ordinance was upheld by the California Supreme Court last April. That decision could still be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

So far there has been one case involving the ordinance that went before a municipal judge in Austin, but it was dismissed because the offender, with the whimsical name of Thomas Sawyer, 39, assured prosecutors that he would make alternate sleeping arrangements. Todd fired off a press release the day after the dismissal, assuring the public that the fact that Sawyer got off "in no way means we won't vigorously enforce this ordinance." Police say they have issued several tickets, which can cost offenders up to $500 or jail time if they don't pay up. It's only a matter of time before the law is tested.

House the Homeless attorney Wood says she welcomes the chance to challenge the law. She has gathered a packet of materials for lawyers and defendants to use in a criminal trial "to help them preserve a good record for appeal after these people are convicted," she says.

House the Homeless President Richard Troxell, who is also director of Legal Aid for the Homeless, says enforcing a camping ban "creates what would essentially amount to a debtor's prison," costing taxpayers $67.50 a day to keep a homeless inmate in jail. Troxell claims that for only $45 a day per client, the city and private sponsors could provide a job training and alcohol and drug detoxification program that would treat homelessness as a health issue, not a criminal issue.

Ordinance supporters argue that groups like the Salvation Army, Helping Our Brothers Out (HOBO), Austin Area Urban League, Caritas of Austin, and several Austin churches are just some of the organizations that already offer various social services to the homeless, ranging from labor connections and babysitting services to transitional housing and Legal Aid. They are also quick to point out that the federal government recently awarded a $3.5 million grant to Austin and Travis County for homeless programs. However, Troxell says that none of these agencies provide a comprehensive approach that homeless people need to stay off drugs, qualify for jobs, and locate affordable housing.

Last summer the council created a "homeless task force" made up of people from the business community, government, and homeless advocacy groups, charged with the task of coming up with a comprehensive plan to address the problem of homelessness. In a revised plan submitted last November, the task force suggested that the city and private sponsors create a "homeless campus" similar to that of Orlando, Florida. Supporters of the campus say it would solve two problems: Not only would the facility provide comprehensive services to those who want to move out of homelessness, it would also provide a place to take the "homeless by choice" out of downtown and into a heated concrete pavillion in an area where tourists and taxpayers never have to venture. Jean Flavelle, executive vice president of the nonprofit group that runs the shelter in Orlando, is visiting Austin this week to promote Orlando's model.

Meanwhile, groups like HOBO continue grappling with meeting an ever-increasing demand for services. Every day, about 150 people visit HOBO in downtown Austin, estimates Adam Cantu, who says he is one of five HOBO staffers remaining after the city trimmed the staff from 22. One thing he says he's noticed since the ordinance went into effect is that his clients are angry and hurt. He says that when he recently watched the police rouse homeless men sleeping under I-35 between Fourth and Fifth Streets, he understood why. "Ten police came and peeled the blankets right off their backs and said, `You ain't welcome here no more,'" Cantu recalls. "You'd have thought the guys had robbed the State of Texas, but they were just sleeping. Makes you wonder how much a human life is worth these days." n

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