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Crime & Justice

Austin's Homelessness Policies Are Being Targeted (Again)

An encampment of people experiencing homelessness under SH 71 in South Austin
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Encampments have sprung up throughout the city under overpasses and along busy streets.

Austin's rules governing behavior related to homelessness have been a perennial source of handwringing since the Austin City Council voted to rollback regulations in June 2019.

This week saw a fresh wave of criticism over the laws governing where people can camp and rest in public.

Gov. Greg Abbott, again, threatened to overrule the city's camping ordinance, and a local GOP-backed group said it, again, had enough petition signatures to undo the ordinances. On top of that, Mayor Steve Adler suggested the city's strategy "is not working," prompting concern and confusion.

Opponents argue the ordinances have led to public safety issues in Austin, as encampments have sprung up throughout the city under overpasses and along busy streets. Supporters argue the rollback cuts down on tickets – most of which went unpaid – and arrest warrants, which make it harder for people to secure housing.

In a conversation with KUT on Thursday, Adler softened his stance somewhat, but admitted the city isn't doing an effective job of helping people get housing and that the rules haven't be well enforced.

"I'm frustrated too," he said, "and I hear the frustration in the community."

Adler conceded the city could do a better job at "managing public spaces" and expressed concern about encampments along roadways. A ban on camping along busy roads had been on the table before the 2019 vote, but was ultimately nixed.

Still, he argued the ordinances do prohibit "unsafe" behavior as it relates to camping, which the city defines as camping in any way that is "materially endangering the health or safety of another person or of themselves."

"I'm not a public safety expert," Adler said. "But it certainly seems to me that people are camping in close proximity to traffic [and that's] something that could easily be running afoul of the council's mandate that people not camp in unsafe places."

The mayor said it's possible council members could revisit the ordinances, but stopped short of suggesting that was in the immediate offing. If the behavior persists, he said, "I think the council needs to consider acting."

Possible Referendum

Despite a possible revision, the ordinances could be heading to voters in May. Save Austin Now, a group led by Travis County GOP Chair Matt Mackowiak, announced this week that it submitted a petition to the city clerk's office to force a referendum on the policies.

The group unsuccessfully petitioned to get the issue on the November ballot, falling short of the 20,000 requisite signatures.

Mackowiak said the group submitted another petition this week with more than 27,000 signatures. The city clerk's office is verifying those signatures, which could take anywhere from three to five weeks.

Critics have argued Save Austin Now misled voters into signing a petition that purportedly seeks to help homeless Austinites, but would ultimately reinstate a law that punishes them.

The group is also facing a city ethics complaint for not disclosing its donors and allegedly paying its canvassers. The group denies both charges.

Philosophical Difference

This week, the governor also renewed his criticism of Austin's policies, calling for a statewide ban on camping in public places. Abbott said Thursday he expects that proposal – for which he offered no details – to be taken up at the Texas Legislature this session.

"I do expect a statewide plan to address homelessness that will include a ban on camping, as well as other ideas, to make sure that Texas will effectively and aggressively address the homeless situation," he said.

Abbott's call for changing Austin's charter isn't new. He's threatened state preemption before, prompting the Austin City Council to reinstate a partial ban on camping near the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless and the Salvation Army's downtown shelter.

The governor has insisted the behavior allowed by the ordinances have led to a public safety crisis.

According to the Downtown Austin Community Court, which handles tickets issued in the downtown area, of the 352 citations the Austin Police Department issued between July and December 2020, 74, or just over a fifth, were issued to homeless Austinites.

Tickets for public intoxication and drug paraphernalia far outweigh any other charge, and the lion's share of defendants in those cases do not identify as homeless.

Adler told KUT a statewide ban on camping would be a "horrible choice."

"It's not safe for folks, it's inhumane and it doesn’t serve to get people out of that position," he said.

Adler said the city hasn't ramped up its ability to house people, but argued the state could do more to help bolster housing and health services.

Austin's more housing-focused philosophy runs counter to the state's preference to fund shelter-based options. San Antonio's Haven for Hope shelter, for example, received more than double the state money that Austin received last year.

In the last year and a half, Austin has used city money primarily to buy and lease hotel properties to shelter people.

While some of those properties have been used to house at-risk Austinites during the pandemic, some of them are closing down to be converted into housing.

Adler said he wants to more "aggressively" pursue those properties this year. Austin City Council will consider two more properties at its meeting next week.

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

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