Abbott Vows To 'Unleash' State Resources If Austin Doesn't Change Its Homelessness Rules By Nov. 1

Oct 2, 2019

Gov. Greg Abbott says he's prepared to "unleash the full authority of every state agency" if Austin doesn't address issues surrounding homelessness by Nov. 1. 

In a letter to Mayor Steve Adler, Abbott said Austin's revision of its homelessness rules presents a public health and safety concern – and that he could marshal state resources to clean up encampments and possibly increase patrols of Department of Public Safety troopers in "areas that pose greater threats."

Adler maintains the city is enforcing its laws, which prohibit aggressive behavior, drug use, defecation and other behaviors in public and that that behavior has been magnified by "the memes" and posts online.

He also reiterated that the ordinances haven't created more homeless people – they've just brought people out of the shadows – and said he understands the concern on the part of the governor and Austinites writ large.

"I recognize the angst and concern that is happening in our community now as homelessness has become more visible," he said, "but we did not create more homeless people."

Abbott's letter rattles off a litany of state agencies that could "ensure that people are protected from health and safety concerns caused by Austin's homelessness policies," citing encampments along roadways and reports of drug use and feces "accumulating at alarming rates."

The agencies cited include the Department of State Health Services, the Department of Public Safety, TxDOT and even the attorney general, who, Abbott writes, could "seek injunctive relief" for violations of state laws "requiring abatement of public health nuisances."

Adler welcomed some of the possible support offered in the letter  – specifically, from the Department of State Health Services and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which could test water quality, for example.

Council Member Greg Casar said he welcomed state assistance, too, but told KUT the letter felt more like a threat as the city works to try to solve homelessness.

"If the governor wants to help us and wants to be a part of that, great," he said. "But what I get from this letter is he's just issuing a threat, rather than issuing an offer to be part of the solution."

Matthew Mollica heads the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, the group that coordinates city, county and nonprofit efforts to house Austinites.

He agreed the letter is more stick than carrot and said it loses sight of the proven solution: housing homeless people.

"There's a clear disconnect between what the governor is recommending here and what actions the state is planning on taking," Mollica said. "They're in complete opposition to what we know, as a community, helps to end homelessness."

The threat of state intervention comes as Austin considers revising new ordinances that effectively legalized camping, sitting or lying down in public – as long as someone doesn't completely obstruct a sidewalk or pose a threat to public health or safety. (Camping on private property or on city parkland is still illegal.)

Adler and other Council members have also suggested enforcement of the revisions could be clarified by the city manager and Austin police. 

City law used to ban sitting or lying down on sidewalks in downtown and West Campus, as well as camping in public areas. Tickets for those rules often went unpaid, however, resulting in warrants that often made it difficult for people to transition out of homelessness.

The old rules were unsuccessfully challenged in court, but the Austin City Council voted in June to change the law in an effort to decriminalize homelessness. It also voted to build a new, $8.6-million emergency shelter in South Austin.

Since then, opposition has sprung up to the new shelter and the rules.

City officials admit the new rules have made Austin's homeless population – which at last count was 2,255 people – more visible, but opponents say rules have created public health threats.

They argue neighborhoods are less safe and that increased encampments along and under public roads have come with increased health hazards – namely due to defecation and drug use.

The issue has also become political proxy war of sorts against liberal Austin policies by the Texas GOP. Abbott first railed against the ordinance changes back in June. Baytown state Rep. Briscoe Cain suggested the state  "abolish the City of Austin" in September. And Monday, Austin-area U.S. Rep Chip Roy sent a similar letter of admonition to the mayor. On top of that, Travis County GOP Chair Matt Mackowiak started an online petition to roll back the ordinances – one that, it should be noted, does not have the power to overturn the city's rules.

ECHO's Mollica said the divisiveness has come to the fore over the last few months, which is disheartening for resource-strapped service providers and people working to end homelessness.

"We'd love to see more resources brought to the table," he said, "and we'd love to see some of this sort of politicized rhetoric lead to more resources, instead of squabbling across political parties."

Adler said the city could clarify the new ordinances as soon as next week. 

This story has been updated.