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City Clerk OKs Save Austin Now's Petition To Reinstate Homelessness Bans, Teeing Up May Referendum

Julia Reihs

Austin voters could decide whether to reinstate rules banning camping and resting in public on May 1.

The City Clerk's office Thursday certified a petition from Save Austin Now that asks the city to revert to its previous laws surrounding homelessness, which banned camping in public and resting in public in the downtown core along with stretches of East Austin and West Campus. The petition would also reinstate limitations on panhandling.

City Council members could OK the petition, reinstating the previous ordinances immediately, or put the decision before voters in May. A city spokesperson said council has until Feb. 12 to decide but that council members will likely meet Feb. 9 to discuss the petition.

It's the second attempt by Save Austin Now to put the policies to a public vote. The group, led by Travis County GOP Chair Matt Mackowiak, submitted a petition that was thrown out by the city clerk in August.

The clerk said Thursday the group submitted a total of 27,879 signatures in its latest petition, and that it met the threshold of 20,000 valid signatures to potentially put the ordinances to a citywide vote.

City Council softened rules surrounding homelessness in June 2019, a choice that's sparked outrage from opponents who argue it's led to a proliferation of unsafe or unsanitary public encampments throughout the city.

Those current rules largely allow camping unless someone camps on city-owned land or in the area around the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless or they're camping in a way that jeopardizes public health or safety.

Supporters argue the rules allow Austinites living outdoors to do so in safer, more publicly visible ways, while also giving them the opportunities to more readily seek medical or housing services. On top of that, they say the rules decriminalize the mere act of being homeless and do away with citations that often go unpaid and lead to arrest warrants that further complicate a transition out of homelessness.

News of the likely referendum comes as Austin City Council considers reinstating some restrictions on public encampments.

Council members will consider an initiative from Council Member Ann Kitchen known as the HEAL Initiative on Thursday. It's a proposal that would seek to house Austinites in high-capacity encampments and then empower the city manager to ultimately prohibit camping in those areas. But council members have suggested the city shouldn't lean on tickets or law enforcement to do so.

Austin's homelessness policies are also embattled on the state level. Gov. Greg Abbott has threatened state intervention to reduce homeless encampments — either by bolstering police patrols in the downtown area or by banning public camping statewide this legislative session.

Got a tip? Email Andrew Weber at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.

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Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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