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A Bill Banning Homeless Encampments In Texas Has Passed The House And Senate. Gov. Abbott Is Likely To Sign It.

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Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
A bill advancing in the Texas Legislature would ban homeless encampments on public land.

A statewide ban on public encampments for Texans experiencing homelessness is a step closer to becoming law after passing both houses of the Texas Legislature.

The Senate on Thursday passed House Bill 1925 by a vote of 27-4. After some amendments, it now goes back to the House for final approval. After that, it’ll head to Gov. Greg Abbott's desk. The governor has signaled he will sign it.

The measure is largely seen as a response to the Austin City Council’s policies surrounding homelessness. The city began allowing public encampments in 2019, effectively decriminalizing homelessness. Opponents argued that policy led to a public health and safety crisis. Supporters said it allowed for homeless Austinites to more readily receive services, while avoiding costly fines and tickets.

A citywide referendum this month reversed that policy and reinstated bans on public encampments.

Abbott has been a fierce critic of Austin’s policies surrounding homelessness.

If signed into law, the bill would ban setting up shelter and storing belongings, along with other behavior, unless given permission to do so. Texans in violation of the ban could face a ticket for a class C misdemeanor, which is punishable by a fine of up to $500.

The bill requires cities and counties looking to set up encampments to get approval from the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs. Jurisdictions found actively violating the ban could be cut off from state money.

The bill’s author, Southlake Republican state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, has insisted the bill isn’t expressly targeting Austin. Opponents argued, however, it was a legislative attempt to undermine Austin's local control, as most major cities in Texas have camping bans.

An amendment from Lakeway Republican state Sen. Dawn Buckingham, who shepherded the bill through the Senate, also bans a city from applying to the state to use parkland to set up temporary encampments — something the Austin City Council has been discussing just this week.

Ahead of the vote, Austin Democratic state Sen. Sarah Eckhardt said she understood lawmakers wanted to “send a strong message to the City of Austin” over its previous policies, but that the ban wouldn’t help Texans experiencing homelessness. She was one of the three senators opposing the ban.

“I will not defend the City of Austin for lifting a camping ban without a plan, because it did not help these poor people find their way to a home,” she said, “but also I cannot support a statewide camping ban that does very little to help these poor people find their way to a home.”

Under the bill, law enforcement officers would be required to point homeless Texans toward shelters and services that could help them get back on their feet. The bill doesn’t expressly provide funding for these services, though Buckingham suggested funding for homeless services could be included in the state’s budget.

Democratic state Sen. José Menéndez of San Antonio, who ultimately supported the bill, offered an amendment that makes the ban a cite-only offense. While the bill “may not be perfect,” he said, San Antonio’s ban on encampments has been effective in connecting people with Haven for Hope, a shelter that’s been lauded by Abbott as a successful model to get people into housing.

“I believe we need to send a message that we cannot just say, ‘It’s OK to sleep wherever you want, and then we can forget about you,’” he said. “We are not helping homeless people by putting them in a tent. We have to provide services for them. We have to treat them like human beings.”

The bill now goes back to the House for final approval of the Senate's amendments. From there, it heads to Abbott's desk. If signed, it would go into effect Sept. 1.

Corrected: May 21, 2021 at 2:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this story initially reported the floor vote of 28-3. The Senate Journal later revised the vote to 27-4.
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