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Save Austin Now Sues City, Saying It Isn't Fully Enforcing Ban On Camping In Public

People camp underneath a U.S. 290 overpass in South Austin in June.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
People camp underneath a U.S. 290 overpass in South Austin in June.

The political action committee Save Austin Now and four business owners have filed a lawsuit against the City of Austin alleging it hasn't been fully enforcing the ban on camping in public.

Voters passed Proposition B in May. The petition-led initiative, organized by Save Austin Now, reinstated old rules surrounding homelessness, including a camping ban.

Travis County GOP Chair Matt Mackowiak, who leads the political action committee, says supporters of Prop B have been patient as the city took a phased-in approach to enforcing the measure. But he says the city is falling short of the directive issued by voters in May.

“I really did hope, and actually expect, that they would fully enforce Prop B,” he said at a press conference Wednesday morning. “They have not taken this seriously from the very beginning.”

After Prop B passed, the Austin Police Department phased in enforcing the public camping ban, at first emphasizing outreach and education over ticketing. APD moved to its final phase of enforcement on Aug. 8, saying it would arrest those who are given a citation and don't voluntarily leave. Violating the ban is a class C misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $500.

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday morning in Travis County District Court seeking that the city be required to enforce the public camping ban. Mackowiak says it was not his goal to sue the city, but nearly four months removed from May’s election, he feels the city is not following through with what voters asked for.

“It’s now time for our mayor and our city council and city manager to respect the will of the voters and fully enforce Prop B," he said.

Laura North, owner of Headspace Salon & Co-op in Southwest Austin, is one of the business owners joining the suit. She said the current situation leaves her concerned for her employees and her customers.

“It just feels exhausting, and I feel like the city isn’t supporting us,” she said.

Stuart Dupuy, owner of Balance Dance Studio, is also joining the suit against the city. He said the camping situation near his business hasn't gotten better since May's vote. If anything, he said, he feels it's accelerated.

"I'm just really hopeful that the city is going to step up. We want to make sure that we take care of the homeless, get them somewhere to go," he said. "We also need to look out for children, people who are trying to run businesses, trying to keep ourselves safe."

The city said it rejected the lawsuit's entire premise.

"Since May, APD officers have visited hundreds of people experiencing homelessness at encampments and other areas across Austin, connecting many with social support services. During that time officers have issued hundreds of written warnings and multiple citations," a spokesperson said by email. "APD and City partners will continue to take a responsible and humane approach to enforcing this law and working with the people who are impacted.”

Advocates for people experiencing homelessness argue the ban criminalizes homelessness and that failure to pay tickets could lead to arrest warrants, which make it harder for people to get housing and jobs.

They also point out that people have nowhere to go because the city is short on shelter space. The city has been struggling to find short-term housing for the more than 3,000 people estimated to be living outside. Moves to convert hotels into temporary housing have been met with resistance from community groups.

“In August alone, the City Council is voting to open up 200 more homes for people sleeping on the streets," Austin City Council Member Greg Casar said in a statement. "The local Republican Party, on the other hand, has spent their time opposing housing and services for the homeless. They’re not working on getting anyone housed, all they care about is getting people arrested.”

Got a tip? Email Jerry Quijano at jerry@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @jerryquijano.

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