New program could let Austin PD enforce trespassing laws under South Austin overpass

Next month, Austin's City Council will take on a new program that would give officers the ability to enforce trespassing laws in a stretch of South Austin.

AUSTIN - For drivers and people living near a stretch of South Austin, seeing people living under the U.S. 290 overpass has become a common sight.

But that could soon change if Austin's city council approves a new agreement next month between the City and the Texas Department of Transportation.

Austin City Council Member Ann Kitchen is behind this new pilot program. It would give officers the jurisdiction to enforce trespassing laws under the overpass, which is state property.

The program would also let officers connect people experiencing homelessness with services.

"This is just one piece of a bigger plan," Kitchen said. "It was never, ever intended to just arrest people just because they are homeless. It is just a tool for the police to use. For example, if someone is posing a danger to themselves or to others."

Kitchen said concerns from people living nearby propelled her to come up with the idea for the pilot program.

"We've started meeting with them and with experts to figure out what's a better way to protect public safety and to connect people to services," she said.

Those experts include members of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition. Executive director Ann Howard agreed with Kitchen that there's more work to be done.

"That is a drop in the bucket of what we need to be doing to support the clients moving from the street into safe and decent housing," Howard said.

Kitchen said the program would, in theory, add more protection to the people who live under the overpass from criminals wishing to harm them.

"It's not acceptable in our city for people to prey on other people, for people to be committing crimes. And I want to make it clear, we're not talking about homeless individuals committing crimes," Kitchen said.

But Howard said the program still wouldn't do much to help get them off the streets.

"We want people to have safe and decent housing," Howard said. "We want them to be connected to their community. We want them to have healthcare, employment. Those are the larger strategies that we're working on, but we have got to speed up the funding available or we're going to have these one-off ideas that aren't that helpful."

The City Council is expected to meet sometime in February to have more discussion about this program. 

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