Mayor Steve Adler is pushing back against criticism of steps the City Council took last week to, as he says, address homelessness more effectively in Austin.
On Thursday, the City Council approved spending $8.6 million on land and a building to house a 100-bed emergency shelter for people experiencing homelessness. The council also voted to amend ordinances governing camping, panhandling and sitting or lying down in public.
Some neighbors near the new shelter site, and supporters of the original ordinances, say these moves will jeopardize public health and safety. On Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott threatened to override any ordinance that permits camping on city streets.
Adler says he understands the concerns, but he also wants to avoid the rifts homelessness has caused in other cities.
"Generally, the population is empathetic and really wants to help these people," he says. "We have to fight against those people that are turning this – or trying to turn this – into a rhetorical device unrelated to what we're actually doing."
Listen to Adler's interview with KUT about the city's next steps in trying to shelter people without a permanent place to live.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler: We need to create shelters the way the ARCH [Austin Resource Center for the Homeless] was supposed to be. The ARCH now is not serving the function it was intended to do. It was supposed to be a triage center. People go into a shelter. They get assessed by a team of social workers and physicians and mental health workers [and] job placement folks. People help people find homes. They get triaged, and they spend a day or two and then they get moved; they get moved out to a better place. The shelters we create on Ben White in that area won't have people that are gathering outside. It's not a drop-in kind of environment.
KUT: How can you guarantee that it won't evolve into a similar situation that the ARCH evolved into?
Adler: We tailor our ordinances so that we don't let people do that. We create places where people are not allowed to gather, and we move people away from those facilities.
KUT: The Ending Community Homelessness Coalition does a “point in time” count each January. The one in January of 2019 put the population in Austin of people experiencing homelessness at about 2,255. Is a 100-bed shelter enough to make a dent in that?
Adler: Not by itself, but it's a really good start. Of that number of people, only about half of them were actually on our streets and not sheltered. So, we're talking about 1,100 people. You know, if we were to put one of these in all 10 [City Council] districts, we now have shelter space for everybody in our city that's unsheltered. We're still at a place where if we're deliberate and innovative and creative and focused and actually do the work, we can get in front of this.
KUT: You said this new shelter is a start. What's next? Will we have a shelter in each council district eventually?
Adler: I would expect that we'd have a shelter or a place where folks can camp safely. As part of the action we took on Thursday, we asked the [Austin City] manager to come back to us in August with his new strategy officer for homelessness and start presenting to the council our new rules about not only where we don't want people camping, but where people can camp. New processes and paths to be able to provide greater sheltering in our city - better pathways to get people into their homes.
Generally, the population is empathetic and really wants to help these people. And we have to fight against those people that are turning this –or trying to turn this – into a rhetorical device unrelated to what we're actually doing.
KUT: Council also last week voted to scale back some city rules that had been about camping, about panhandling and also about sitting or lying down in public. You said in Austin we're not like some other cities where battle lines have been drawn, but it kind of seems like some battle lines are drawn. People were very emotional during testimony about both ordinances and the purchase of the land and building for shelter.
Adler: People certainly were emotional, and you can understand that. But listen to what people are saying, and listen to what we did. People are saying we shouldn't pull back any ordinances that are helping us with public safety issues and public health issues. I agree with that. So does the council. The council did nothing to scale back on officers’ ability to ticket or arrest someone that by panhandling or camping or sitting or lying is presenting a public safety risk or a public health hazard. We did nothing to scale those back.
Somebody who's presenting a risk or a threat, someone that is aggressively walking up to people and scaring them or following them, someone that is blocking passage way so we can't move – yes, we want our police to act. And yes, this council left those ordinances in place that enable our law enforcement to do that.
KUT: A few days after the council took all of this action here's what Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted: “If Austin or any other Texas city permits camping on city streets it will be yet another local ordinance the state of Texas will override. At some point, cities must start putting public safety and common sense first.”
Adler: I was a little disappointed the governor was retweeting somebody from California trying to talk about what we're doing here in Texas. But the governor's point – that we need to focus on public safety and public health – is exactly right. I assume that someone on his staff didn't really explain what it was that the city had done.
You know, the Legislature doesn't meet for another year and a half. Then my hope is and my expectation is that Austin's going to develop a program that the state will be proud of –a program that the legislature will scale up to cities across our state as an effective way to deal with a challenge which is out of hand in many cities across the country and getting worse in the state of Texas.
KUT: You say that the city of Austin – in the way the ordinances have been revised in the vote about the land and the building for the shelter – that the city remains focused on public health and safety. But what do you say to neighbors who don't want the new shelter there? There are folks who look at that situation and just say, "No matter what the ordinances may say, this is not what I want in my neighborhood. This is a public health and safety risk no matter what." What do you say to them?
Adler: First you say, you know, I recognize the anxiety and it is incumbent upon the city to execute this in a way that where those neighbors fears don't materialize. If we don't do anything - if we don't provide safe spaces, constructive spaces for folks experiencing homelessness to go so that they can be moved into homes. If we don't do this, we're just going to fall further and further behind.
Most of the people that are homeless on our streets are people that do not have mental health challenges or addictions. These are people that just ran into the perfect storm in their lives. They lost their job and their family and their home all at the same time, and they just didn't know where to turn or what to do. The number of people that are homeless – sheltered or not sheltered – on any given night, 2,250, that's a number we can do something about, and we need to.