A series of interlocking issues will dominate local governance and politics this Spring. At least two of those are petition induced referendums on the May 1 municipal ballot: homelessness, in the form of whether to overturn the City Council’s June 2019 repeal of the camping ban; and whether to switch Austin’s form of government from Council-Manager to a Strong Mayor system. A third major issue will be the search for a new Police Chief to replace retiring Brian Manley. All three of these issues intersect in some way with issues covered in another story posted today, regarding Austin’s history with race.

Although homelessness is in no way limited to non-whites, it does fall disproportionately on minorities. Another reality that homelessness shares with racial issues is that the problem is national in scope and thus particularly difficult, if not impossible, to solve completely on the local level. Recent Austin City Councils, however,  have shown that they do not necessarily agree with that assessment; that is that they can’t solve homelessness completely on the local level. 

Of course they do have to try. It goes without saying, but we will note anyway, that no help can be expected from the state of Texas. President Joe Biden has plans to address homelessness, but that is not imminent — unless perhaps the COVID relief bill provides some help.  

As far as ending homelessness in Austin goes, or even reducing it, reality is currently heading in a different direction. The number of homeless people in Austin has increased since the Council repealed the camping ban in June 2019. The early 2020 Point in Time in-person count led by ECHO (Ending Community Homelessness Coalition) showed an increase from the previous year. This January’s in-person county was called off due to the pandemic, but an ECHO official told media outlets that he expects the number has risen. There are a number of factors for the rise, including economic factors relating to the pandemic.

In February, however, Mayor Steve Adler, one of the biggest proponents of lifting the camping ban in 2019, said publicly that the repeal is “not working.” That came shortly after the City Clerk certified that there were enough petition signatures to force an election to reinstitute the camping ban. Quickly thereafter Council Member Ann Kitchen proposed her HEAL (Housing-Focused Homeless Encampment Assistance Link) resolution. HEAL Phase 1 charges the City Manager with finding at least temporary housing within six months for people in four designated areas of particularly sprawling encampments, along: Ben White Blvd; U.S. 183 North; East Cesar Chavez at the Terrazas Library;  and West Cesar Chavez near City Hall and the hike and bike trail along Lady Bird Lake.

“The purpose of the HEAL initiative,” reads Kitchen’s Council resolution on the matter, “is to immediately house individuals, create a path to permanent housing, and over time, eliminate the necessity for unsheltered camping in our city.”

“The purpose of the HEAL initiative,” reads Ann Kitchen’s Council resolution on the matter, “is to immediately house individuals, create a path to permanent housing, and over time, eliminate the necessity for unsheltered camping in our city.”

While clearly a worthwhile goal, this shift in approach also raises another issue to keep an eye on as we move along; whether the Council is setting up the Manager to blame if their efforts don’t succeed. That particularly comes to mind on the homelessness issue. In June 2019 the Council went against management recommendations, particularly from the Police Department, and overturned the camping ban. Now the City Manager is being tasked with cleaning it all up.

The HEAL resolution directs the City Manager to work with City staff, along with social service professionals and agencies to give homeless people living at the broadly specified locations individual attention that will help each one get out of homelessness. Help provided could range from helping locate possible housing to providing health care, substance abuse counseling or mental health treatment. The resolution also envisions “modular or ‘tiny home”’ construction on vacant properties as potential temporary solutions to move people out of the encampments.

Initially, Kitchen’s resolution called for adding the four areas of HEAL Phase 1 back to the areas where camping is not allowed. After push back from some advocates for the homeless and some fellow Council Members, however, Kitchen removed all enforcement mechanisms to clear the areas, except signs.

As to a timeline, the resolution directs, “The City Manager shall endeavor to complete the process for Phase I HEAL Priority Locations within six months of the effective date of this resolution.”

Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk
Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk – Photo from City of Austin

While the language in the resolution is perhaps a bit squishy, it certainly sounds like the City Manager is supposed to have everyone currently living within the four broadly categorized encampments housed, at least temporarily, within six months. On the other hand, unclear language means it is open to interpretation. That means the Council could interpret it however they want six months from now.

Instructing the City Manager to carry out Council policies is the way the Council-Manager form of government works. So in that way such instruction is not unusual. On the other hand the encampments have only grown and sprawled to new areas in the year and nine months since the Council repealed the old camping ban, against management recommendations. So the Council now telling the City Manager to fix it bears at the least some ongoing scrutiny and observation.

Kitchen Probably Didn’t Expect a Thank You, But Dang . . . 

While the Council’s intentions deserve scrutiny, it also bears noting that Kitchen has a clear record of trying to address the homeless issue even when she knows she will face political heat and public anger. That was certainly the case in June 2019 when she proposed housing for the homeless in a vacant office building across Ben White Blvd from South Austin Hospital — in the District she represents. As with her current HEAL proposal, Kitchen’s plan was to involve social service professionals and agencies at all steps of the process, including at the site. That proposal met fierce opposition from adjoining neighborhoods. It was eventually abandoned and morphed into the Council’s current policy of buying hotels to temporarily house homeless individuals. 

Austin City Council Member Ann Kitchen - Photo from City of Austin
Austin City Council Member Ann Kitchen – Photo from City of Austin

One might think that such a good faith effort would earn Kitchen some respect for her motives among local advocates for the homeless. If one thought that, however, the February 4 Council meeting provided some contrary evidence. That’s the meeting where Kitchen’s HEAL proposal was considered by the Council. A parade of speakers opposed the HEAL ordinance and accused Kitchen of trying to “recriminalize” homelessness. As one early speaker put it, “Essentially what you are doing is criminalizing being unhoused. . .You are not providing any support for these community members.” One speaker called Kitchen’s proposal “dehumanizing,” another labeled it “not humane,” while still another speaker accused her of “obfuscation.”

Additionally, much of the opposition to Kitchen’s proposal was framed in racial terms. As one speaker explained, “Like so many issues this comes down to expectations of white culture. White people, white culture, expect to be comfortable at all times.” He added, “More policing does not make homeless people safer.”

Another speaker further explained, “My concern is that the council is once again prioritizing the comfort of white homeowners like myself over true safety for Black Austinites.”

One speaker called Kitchen’s proposal “dehumanizing,” another labeled it “not humane,” while still another speaker accused her of “obfuscation.”

Continuing the theme, another speaker explained, “Ticketing, arrests, fines, displacement and police brutality are the only things that will come of reinstating a camping ban. Do not push these people out of sight just to make affluent white Austinites feel more comfortable. Stand with our unhoused communities and push for longterm compassionate change.”

One speaker took it even further, explaining, “Before colonization all peoples were free to roam the land and to set up their tent camps where it suited them. . . It is the same today with our unhoused neighbors.” 

At least one speaker went against the overall flow. A resident of the Cesar Chavez neighborhood told the Council said she lives “around the corner from the Terrazas Library” and identified herself as “a single brown woman, raised by a single mother.” She said she supported the HEAL resolution, adding that she “would support a full ban.”

She continued, “The residents on my block are tired and exhausted from having people come to their house, yelling at them on their porch. We’ve essentially become social workers, and we’re not qualified. Because on a given day anyone can come screaming down our street. I want these people to have mental health services, most of them belong in hospitals, and need rehab.” She also mentioned, “the unfortunate nefarious elements that come along with this.”

Council Deliberation

Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper Madison proposed postponement of the HEAL item, saying the Council needed more time to deliberate, “given some of the testimony.” Speakers, continued Harper Madison “raised significant concerns” and she would like more time to “assuage” that “fear.” Harper Madison invoked a speaker who raised the specter of homeless people being moved forcefully out of the camps, despite the resolution saying the opposite. Harper Madison said she couldn’t get the image out of her head that the City would “take their tents and throw them in the trash.”

Kitchen politely retorted, in a masterpiece of Council Member speak, “While I appreciate that some folks said that, I want to make sure that you understand that the language in this resolution is not about moving people and throwing out their things.”

Eventually the Council approved Kitchen’s HEAL initiative, with Harper Madison, Greg Casar and Vanessa Fuentes voting no.

Shortly after that vote, the Council took up the proposed purchase of a Candlewood Suites in the Anderson Mill area to house homeless people. (See previous story.) Some residents of the area spoke in opposition, although some supported it too. The members of the opposition most likely to be affected were the part owner of an adjacent hotel and the owner of Freda’s Restaurant next door to the Candlewood Suites. For the record, both are of Asian descent which seemed to at least complicate assertions by speakers earlier that opposition to Council homeless policies revolves around white people’s insistence on comfort.

The hotel purchase passed 10 to 1 with only Council Member Mackenzie Kelly voting no. Kelly drew praise from Mayor Steve Adler for how she handled discussions with neighbors.

The Fire This Time

Part of Kitchen’s HEAL resolution proved prescient. Well, prescient may be an exaggeration. A more accurate description might be that Kitchen’s resolution contained a realistic warning — which came true in a rather spectacular way. Part of the resolution warned that the encampments “pose risks to public health and safety due to close proximity to vehicular and pedestrian traffic and other hazards.” 

Sunday morning March 7, a fire broke out at a homeless encampment along Ben White, just east of IH 35, under the long curving ramp taking east bound motorists on Ben White to IH 35 southbound. Reportedly, no one was hurt, but lanes had to be closed on Ben White, the frontage road just East of Ben White and the ramp from Ben White onto S IH 35. KXAN reported that “Drivers nearby could see flames billowing from the median and upward to the bridge above.” Pictures and video show thick smoke engulfing the highway ramp and flames rising at least to the bottom of the ramp overhead — as cars drove over it.

The cause was a candle placed too close to something that was combustible. At first there were reports of multiple tents destroyed, but follow up reporting said only one dwelling was destroyed or partially destroyed. According to KXAN, that wasn’t a tent, but a dwelling “made out of tarps, pipes, and multiple shopping carts.” Also, “AFD told KXAN that the specific combustible material the candle came into contact with is unknown, but there were tarps, hay bales, clothes, a bag and a couch in the area where the fire started.”

No one was injured. The roads were reopened in a few hours and the bridge/ramp will need minor repairs.

While thankfully no one was injured in the blaze, it will doubtlessly add heat to the discussion in the upcoming election on whether to overturn Council’s June 2019 repeal of the camping ban. 

It is about as complex and intractable as societal problems get.

Many people worry about various potential dangers emanating from the encampments, and the fire will only heighten those concerns. Others, like the February 4 speakers at Council, believe such fears are overblown or imaginary. In any case, to reinstate the camping ban at this point — or overturn the repeal — would be very complicated after so much time has passed.

Many advocates for the homeless argue that homeless people are safer in the encampments than camping in the woods or drainage ditches. That is probably accurate. Plus, where would people in the encampments go if turned out without a different place to live. Some would likely end up deeper in various neighborhoods and cause a new set of concerns.

On the other hand the idea behind the Council’s repeal of the camping ban was that doing so was the first step to ending homelessness in Austin. Twenty-one months later the homeless population is larger — with no end in sight. Not all of that increase can be attributed to the repeal of the camping ban. We are in a pandemic with an accompanying economic disaster. There is, however, evidence that some people are moving here from other places since the ban was repealed. For instance a man from Corpus Christi who moved into a gazebo on the north shore of Lady Bird Lake told the American-Statesman in early February that he moved to Austin three months ago. A camper a little further down the hike and bike trail said he had been in Austin two months and is not leaving his spot next to the trail. 

It is about as complex and intractable as societal problems get. Homelessness is a problem all over the country. Thus, it is particularly difficult for one municipality to eradicate it.

Still, better get to work City Manager. He not only has to fix homelessness in these four areas within six months, but by August 1 he has to establish a partnership with Huston Tillotson and the LBJ School to calculate the “economic value” of historic local racial injustice. In the meantime he also has to find a new Police Chief.

So yeah, better get busy.

(Photo at top is of a homeless encampment on East Cesar Chavez near the Terrazas Library, by Adela Mancías)



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