Naked City

Off the Desk:

The move is hardly a coup d'état, but still news of the Planning Commission's decision to have chairwoman Betty Baker and vice chair Art Navarro swap jobs Tuesday night, was met with surprise and more than a little grumbling yesterday. Baker, elected chairwoman in a split vote last year, was blindsided by the commission's decision Tuesday night. "Nobody heard anything," said Richard Arellano, aide to Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, who appointed Baker. "It's usually protocol to indicate to the sitting chair that a change like this is coming." During her tenure Baker developed a reputation for keeping things rolling at an efficient clip. Several commissioners -- including Navarro, who was quoted in Ken Martin's In Fact Daily as being "shocked" after the election -- said the turn of events was unexpected. But yesterday, Susana Almanza and Jean Mather, two of the five who cast votes for Navarro downplayed the change, saying there was some desire for a more neutral moderator leading the board and Navarro had expressed interest in the job. Said commissioner Ben Heimsath, who voted for Baker: "It reminded me of when, during the Reagan administration, James Baker and Donald Regan swapped cabinet posts." -- L.T.

During a recent round of e-mail exchanges among people concerned about the controversy at KOOP radio, someone expressed surprise that the obvious hadn't happened already -- how could a bunch of lefties, progressives, and political activists have gone this long without a good old-fashioned, sign-carrying, slogan-shouting protest? That's exactly what will happen next Friday, August 6, on the sidewalk in front of the community station's studios at 304 E. Fifth. Hostility toward the station's board of trustees apparently reached the flashpoint two weeks ago when the station's founder, Jim Ellinger, was suspended from his weekly radio show by the board of trustees (see last week's "Media Clips"). The demonstration is being called the "Put the Communities Back in KOOP Radio" rally, and organizers say the theme is "Make KOOP Radio a Co-op Again."-- L.N.

The roll-out of Time Warner's 24-hour cable news station News 8 Austin began in earnest this week. A four-minute infomercial touting News 8's future programming and introducing its anchors began airing Tuesday and will air on a continuous loop until the round-the-clock news programming begins. The specific launch date has yet to be announced....

Usually when we talk transportation, we talk about getting people from one place to another. Rarely do we look at transportation issues through the spectrum of social justice. But a one-day symposium sponsored by the Trans Texas Alliance is doing just that, focusing on equity issues, including where dollars are spent and who bears the costs and reaps the benefits of our local, state, and national transportation policies. "Just Transportation" will take place from 8:30am to 5pm, Monday, August 9, at the University of Texas' Goldsmith Hall. Space is very limited, but there may be a few seats available. For more information call 469-7905. ...

The Capital Area Planning Council, the United Way, and the Texas Health and Human Services Commission are teaming up to develop a blueprint for addressing local health and human services needs and are asking for community input. A forum is slated for 9:30am, August 4 at St. Edward's University. The Austin meeting is one of 21 sessions being held across the state this summer to seek comment on how best to improve care and services. For more information, call 916-6062. ...

Austin Police Department is offering free training for members of neighborhood associations, citizens coalitions and others interested in problem-solving and improving their communities. The Citizens Academy for Problem Solving is a three-session course to teach people to work together and with the police department to handle real neighborhood issues. The course begins 8:30am Saturday, August 7. Call Martha Byram, Austin Police Department Public Education Unit 416-5553 for course schedules and applications. ...

Bumper Sticker of the Week: "Leave Leslie Alone!" A reference to the battle between the city's favorite thong-wearing homeless resident, Leslie Cochran, and the Downtown Austin Alliance Executive Director Charles Betts who has called Leslie a nuisance and asked the city to crack down on his sidewalk antics. -- L.T.

Gimme Shelter

After almost five years of haggling over the details of a downtown homeless shelter geared toward "hard-to-serve" single men, the city has finally ironed out a plan it believes everyone can agree to. The shelter proposal, announced at the City Council's work session last Thursday morning, has been whittled significantly since its inception two years ago, when preliminary plans called for a 300- to 500-bed "homeless campus" to serve men who were being excluded from shelters such as the one operated by the Salvation Army, which is forming a subsidiary organization to run the site. The plans now call for a 100-space shelter with an attached day resource center, which will provide homeless men with information about job training, alcohol and drug abuse counseling, and mental health services.

Joyce Pohlman, Austin's homeless coordinator, says the center will serve as an alternative to "public camping" or sleeping in public, which was made a class C misdemeanor in 1997. Although (as Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman pointed out during the work session) the city's camping ban is at best constitutionally questionable, that ban remains in effect, and Pohlman admits that the shelter as proposed will not be enough to solve the problem. "Austin does not have enough places to accommodate those individuals. If all of them came in to spend the night at this shelter, the shelter would not be able to hold them," Pohlman said.

The shelter's limited capacity concerns House the Homeless director Richard Troxell, who worries that the city "will still continue committing constitutional violations by arresting people for performing natural acts, like sleeping." Moreover, Troxell says, the facility will be run by a subsidiary of the Salvation Army, an evangelical organization notorious for its stringent policies requiring "self-improvement" and detoxification for those who stay at its existing shelter. "The Salvation Army is going to change the name of this shelter, but people on the street are not going to be fooled," Troxell says. "There are people that have been excluded from the current facility and they have no appeal process when they are excluded. The situation is ripe for abuse."

City officials insist, however, that the shelter -- which will be located on land adjacent to the current Salvation Army facility on East Seventh Street -- will not turn anyone away unless that person is committing a crime. "Clearly, anyone who is presenting a danger to himself or others or committing some criminal act is not going to be protected from the law inside this facility," Pohlman says. "This is a place for people who cannot, for whatever reason, fit into the current requirements for Salvation Army facilities. ... It offers a little more flexibility for those who have difficulty getting onto the road to self-improvement."

A vote on the shelter, which is budgeted at $3.9 million and tentatively scheduled for completion in April 2001, could come as early as today, July 29. Other parts of the city's $12 million homeless initiative which are still in the planning stages include two East Austin shelters for women and children, to be operated by SafePlace; a substance abuse treatment facility; and a community court for so-called "nuisance crimes" like public camping and intoxication, which the council is expected to vote on today.-- E.C.B.

Go Lance Go

Professional sports is a polluted mess. Too many athletes with oversized egos and oversized paychecks. But last Saturday, an Austinite proved that sports can provide transcendent moments that lift the human spirit. On Saturday, Lance Armstrong won the final time trial in the Tour de France. In doing so, he clinched his victory in one of the most difficult sporting events on earth. Armstrong didn't have to win the time trial. He already held a lead of more than six minutes over the rest of the field. He could have taken it easy and still been the overall winner of the race, which covers 2,287 miles in 21 stages. But Armstrong wanted to win the stage. He wanted to prove to the rest of the racers in the field that he was the best cyclist in the world. He wanted to ride into Paris on Sunday wearing the yellow jersey.

The French refer to the time trials as the "truth" tests; they show which riders are strong and which are merely pretenders. Armstrong rode the time trial faster than any of his competitors at an average speed of 31 miles per hour. As he crossed the finish line, Armstrong not only proved that he is without doubt, the best cyclist in the world; he single-handedly restored the Tour to prominence just one year after the event was disgraced by a drug scandal involving several cycling teams. Armstrong proved that despite the corruption, there is still purity, even nobility, in sports.

His victory assures that Armstrong will be a rich man. Millions of dollars in endorsements and prize money is coming his way. The city and the Lance Armstrong Foundation are planning a parade to welcome Armstrong back to Austin next month. But the money and adulation are secondary. As most people know by now, three years ago his body was rife with cancer. It was in his brain, his lungs, and his testicles. It's remarkable that Armstrong came back from cancer to compete. But what makes his feat especially astounding is that Armstrong competed in such a commanding way. He didn't just beat his opponents, he crushed them, winning the Tour by a margin of more than seven minutes.

On Saturday night, a commentator on National Public Radio speculated Armstrong may have had an edge on his opponents. The cancer, said the commentator, may have psyched out Armstrong's competitors, demoralizing them because Armstrong was showing so much strength and ability even after undergoing long doses of chemotherapy and surgery. Armstrong himself told reporters that the cancer had probably given him an edge; it made him mentally tougher, removed his doubts and made him cast aside any notions about his limits.

Whatever it was that fueled Armstrong, watching him power down the roads around Futuroscope last Saturday afternoon was pure poetry. Armstrong demonstrated that hard work and desire can overcome the biggest obstacles. He had worked harder and longer than any of the other riders in the race and he won. And he did it with humility and grace. Armstrong's victory was so overwhelming that he himself appeared overcome at times. During several interviews, he appeared near tears at the magnitude of his achievement. On Sunday, after riding into Paris as the champion, he told a reporter from ESPN, "I'm living proof that there are second chances in life and that the second time around is even better than the first." -- R.B.

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