Chaos as City Hall Encampment Cleared by Police

Sweeping the plaza

APD officers remove unhoused persons' tents around City Hall on Monday, June 14, ahead of upcoming sidewalk construction (Photo by John Anderson)

A chaotic scene unfolded outside of City Hall Monday morning, June 14, as police officers and other city workers – citing upcoming sidewalk construction – cleared the encampment that had emerged there as a protest to voter approval of Proposition B, which reinstated criminal penalties for camping in public spaces. City officials later said that the scene was "very different" than what is expected at other locations where those experiencing homelessness are encamped.

Some camp residents told the Chronicle that officers gave verbal notice on Satur­day, June 12; others said not until Sunday were they told that if they did not move their belongings by 10pm that night, they could be arrested. None saw any written notice. "Apparently they're doing construction and they need everyone here to move," one person camping at City Hall, Smokey Quartz, told us. "They told us they need to move, and are now threatening to arrest this man who is homeless and sleeping on the sidewalk."

Word came down from management about the planned clearance late on Friday, giving APD and the agencies that could assist the unhoused little time to prepare a safe enforcement plan.

It took more than an hour before officials could produce for Quartz the paperwork documenting the construction project. In the meantime, officers and workers began dismantling tents, even throwing some away. Eventually, violet bins provided by the Downtown Austin Community Court arrived for temporary storage, and some at the camp helped move belongings of those who were not present. The planned construction appears to be work along the curb­line, ramp, and crosswalk at the corner of Cesar Chavez and Guadalupe, as well as repairs to the shared-use path on the Drake Bridge (South First Street). A right-of-way excavation permit was issued on May 19, for work to begin on June 7.

"Members of the Homeless Outreach Street Team (HOST) and APD's District Representatives have met with people around City Hall to inform them about the upcoming construction," a spokesperson told the Chronicle in a Monday morning statement. "Those who refuse to comply with the direction may be given a citation for violating the camping ordinance, or be placed under arrest if they fail to comply."

Volunteers help move and save belongings of campers during the June 14 cleanup (Photo by John Anderson)

At a press conference Tuesday, June 15, City Manager Spencer Cronk said future camp clearances, as the city complies with Proposition B, would unfold differently, since those outside City Hall were protesters more akin to those who took over the plaza during Occupy Austin in 2012, who were also cleared by police as trespassers. Segments on local TV and Fox News have stirred up fear and pressured Cronk to take action; Council Member Mackenzie Kelly told Fox 7 Austin on May 30 "It's getting out of hand. My question is, at what point will someone get seriously hurt for this to stop?"

While many at the camp agreed they were protesting the city's inadequate response to homelessness, they were also among the thousands of Austinites living without shelter. "I've been waiting here for housing for over 40 days and I don't know when I'll get placed anywhere," William Bradford told us. "Housing is a human right and I'm here protesting for my rights." Others said they've been told that long waitlists for housing mean they'll be waiting for placements for up to three years.

While interim police Chief Joseph Cha­con agreed that the scene was "very different" from other encampments, "My understanding is that the officers did a good job," and he doesn't anticipate any changes to the city's Prop B plans. Under those plans, nobody residing in an encampment that is now illegal would be forced to move until August. But three city sources confirmed to us independently that word came down from management about the planned clearance late on Friday, June 11, giving both APD and the agencies that could assist the unhoused, like DACC or Integral Care, little time to prepare a safe enforcement plan.

“I’ve been waiting here for housing for over 40 days and I don’t know when I’ll get placed anywhere. Housing is a human right and I’m here protesting for my rights.” – William Bradford

As Cronk's office sent word to relevant departments, a city press release marked the beginning of Phase 2 of the Prop B plan: "From Sunday, June 13 ... APD will generally issue written warnings, and may issue citations for violating the camping ordinanceif they encounter individuals who have already been warned." In the statement provided to us Monday, the spokesperson reiterated that the Prop B plan allows for arrests whenever an individual's behavior "poses an imminent danger to themselves or others." Blocking the right of way for the planned construction posed such a danger, the spokesperson said.

At least seven people were arrested at the scene and taken to the Travis County Jail for magistration, booked on charges including interfering with public duties and failure to obey a lawful order, both class C misdemeanors. The city spokesperson had previously said those arrested for an "applicable class C misdemeanor" could be processed by DACC, whose job is to provide social service support as an alternative to being booked into the jail.

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