Homelessness in Austin isn't new.
But the Austin City Council's June vote to roll back ordinances criminalizing the behavior of homeless people has brought new focus on the issue. How to deal with homelessness has been as divisive as it is crucial to the future of Austin. So, we've collected a handful of opinions espoused over the last few months.
Outside the Austin Police Department headquarters, APD Assistant Chief Justin Newsom argued in July that the city simply needs more shelter space, like the new one being built in South Austin. As head of downtown enforcement, he says officers "rarely" enforced the city's old ordinances and more often than not depended on asking people to move, rather than ticketing or arresting them. Still, the city doesn't have enough shelter space to house unsheltered Austinites.
Criminal justice advocate Chris Harris helped start the conversation surrounding the city's ordinances last year. He's been at the forefront of the discussion before and after the new rules went into effect in July. At a city-sponsored forum on homelessness in August hosted by UT's LBJ School for Public Affairs, he argued Austinites living on the streets are your neighbors and should be treated as such.
Gov. Greg Abbott lent his voice to the conversation in the form of an ultimatum: Austin needs to fix its policy or the state will intervene. In a letter to Mayor Steve Adler, Abbott said he could send a litany of state agencies to Austin to ameliorate public health and safety issues that, as he sees it, were caused by the ordinances – unless "meaningful reforms are not implemented" by Nov. 1.
Abbott has joined a vocal chorus complaining that people experiencing homelessness are defecating and using drugs in public. It should be noted, Abbott didn't cite specific data to back his claim that the city has seen "alarming rates" of feces and used needles. The city would argue that behavior has always been against city law, but scores of opponents online argue the ordinances have "emboldened" lewd behavior and attracted more homeless people to Austin.
In June, shortly before the Austin City Council voted to rollback its regulations prohibiting where people can sit, lie down and camp in public, Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza said she hoped the conversation wouldn't devolve into an us-versus-them argument. A month and a half later at a city forum hosted by St. Edward's University, Garza argued that's more or less what has happened. She added that homelessness in Austin isn't going to be solved without taking the simple step of addressing it – and seeing it – and that the city has to face homelessness head on.
South Austin resident Emily Steinbauer testified before Austin City Council voted to rollback its prohibitions on camping and resting, and approved $8.6 million to open an emergency shelter in South Austin. She told Council members she'd heard of the site-selection days before the vote, that she felt the city's decision-making process was rushed, and that she felt its presence would exacerbate the harassment she's experienced in her neighborhood.
As co-owner of the Royal Blue Grocery chain, George Scariano has been doing business in the downtown area for 13 years. He says, during that time, his employees and he have had a working relationship with their "homeless neighbors." But, he says, since the new city rules went into effect on July 1, his stores – namely the one at Sixth Street and Congress Avenue – have called police more frequently, because of increases in theft and harassment. He says the city didn't consider the business community's input when drafting the rules – and that the city rushed through the rule-making process.
Patricia Clark has been homeless on and off for 25 years. While she sometimes stays with her family in East Austin, she says there aren't enough services for single women who are experiencing homelessness here. Clark attended a city forum on homelessness in July at the Austin Convention Center, but told KUT she walked out because she was so frustrated that single women weren't a part of the conversation. She tried to get services at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, which is phasing out its day-sleeping services as it transitions to housing-focused services. Clark also tried to get a bed through the Salvation Army's Safe Sleep program, but was told there was a three-month waitlist.
Andres Ramos told the Austin City Council in June that he supports a shelter in South Austin. Ramos said he's had his back yard broken into, his car broken into and his bike stolen, but he told Council that he didn't "want to see our community fail them again." He said he's heard complaints and concerns from his neighbors about safety, but that he believes a police substation in the area around Banister and Ben White could address those concerns.