In any other election season a proposal to change Austin’s form of City government would likely gather the most attention. Not so this year as the tents of homeless people line Austin roadways, sidewalks and parks. This situation results from a City Council decision in June 2019 to repeal a then City ordinance which prohibited camping on sidewalks and other public places. Arguing that the long standing ordinance criminalized homelessness, the Council repealed it. Council Members Kathie Tovo and Alison Alter voted no, arguing that more time was needed to develop a plan.
The rest of the Council appeared not to grasp the complexities of the situation. That includes the varying reasons that people are homeless. Some are down on their luck, the victims of personal or economic calamities beyond their control. Others, however, are mentally ill or have serious addiction and substance abuse problems. Some are violent. Council Members may have realized these complexities when they took their vote, but it is difficult to conclude that from their actions.
When citizen resistance emerged, some Council Members were quick to condemn the resisting citizens and accuse them of just wanting to keep the problem out of sight. There was doubtlessly some of that, but citizens also raised legitimate public policy concerns, including about public health and safety.
Since that 2019 vote the Council has taken initiatives to try to provide housing, mainly buying hotels for temporary or transitional (to permanent) housing. During this time, however, the homeless population has increased and homeless encampments have proliferated along highways and main streets. More recently homeless individuals have begun to take over some City parks, especially the hike and bike trail along Lady Bird Lake downtown. Also, as the coronavirus pandemic kept most downtown workers at home the homeless became a more and more dominant presence on downtown streets.
More than a year ago a group led by Travis County Republican Party chair Matt Mackowiak, but also featuring some rank and file Democrats, began a petition drive to roll back the Council’s repeal of the camping ban. That became Proposition B on the May 1 ballot. Although proponents argue that approving Proposition B will focus attention on the problem, the ballot initiative does not do a single thing to help any homeless person find housing. Instead, as opponents of the measure maintain, the people now in very visible camps will be driven back into the shadows, into situations where they will almost certainly be less safe than they are now.
So, the immediate issue results from failed policies of the Austin City Council. That also includes unavoidable suspicions, at least with the author, about the rapid departures of two homeless issues coordinators, hired to oversee the City’s efforts after the Council vote to repeal the camping ban. In particular, the much heralded first coordinator resigned after only a month on the job. The rapid departures could be coincidental, or related to personal situations of the individuals. It is impossible to know, but it’s also hard to escape the suspicion that the two employees, especially the first one, fled quickly after encountering an ideologically driven, micro managing Council majority that had already made an intractable problem more impossible.
Thus, Austin voters face an agonizing choice, for many, of how to vote on Proposition B. Both the Statesman and Austonia have published thought provoking articles on this dilemma. And, the Statesman published an excellent front page editorial on the issue in its Sunday April 18 print edition. One Austonia story described how numerous citizens would rather be voting on some sort of plan to address the crisis and provide housing and services, as opposed to just reinstating the camping ban. The story described the thought process of one woman who seemed far from a knee jerk clear the camps voter. She ultimately had decided to vote yes. “I’m sorry,” she told Austonia, “but as a member of society there are certain rules and regulations.”
Her decision resulted in part from her husband witnessing violence in homeless camps along Riverside Drive, near their home. After witnessing the violence she and her husband gave up walking to the nearby grocery store.
While both the ballot issue and much of the severity of the current crisis results from Austin City Council policies, the root causes of the homeless problem stretch back way beyond this Council, to previous Councils, but also to:
- decades of state policies that cut services and housing for the mentally ill;
- lack of a national strategy;
- forty years of redistribution of wealth upward;
- a service oriented economy with very low wages for most of those providing the services;
- housing prices that have soared while wages have remained flat for much of the population;
- a severely frayed social safety net;
- all culminating in a national disgrace millions live only a few lost paychecks away from homelessness.
Governor Greg Abbott has mostly used the issue mostly as a vehicle to attack the leftist controlled Austin City Council. To the Governor’s credit, he did provide state land near the airport which has become functional housing for some formerly homeless people.
The Republican controlled Texas Legislature has been predictable. They offer no initiatives except mean silliness like a legislator proposing to name part of IH 35 through Austin the “Steve Adler Public Restroom Highway.”
President Joe Biden has a national house the homeless plan, but it will not provide help immediately. Mayor Adler wants to take a large portion of funds the City will get from Biden’s COVID relief bill and dedicate it toward homelessness. This too offers possibilities.
There has also been a flurry of City activity in the last few months and weeks to develop new plans and approaches on the local level. This is admirable and necessary, and the core people involved are doubtlessly sincere and devoted to housing the homeless. The timing on the Council’s part, however, suggests a pre-election motivation to convince voters that solutions are finally on the way and there is no need to vote for Proposition B.
Strictly local action on homelessness also carries some hard questions that are controversial even to mention in our current censorial political climate. But, barring a national or state approach to the problem, it seems fair to ponder whether Austin’s super tolerant camping policy is encouraging more homeless people to move to Austin. And, will a stronger policy on getting people into housing do the same?
No matter what happens in the election, it will not be a time for election night parties. If the repeal of the repeal fails, the City Council should not take that as a validation of their policies. If it passes, that should not be taken as an indication that a majority of Austinites have turned hard-hearted toward the homeless.
Perhaps the best outcome would be if, regardless of the election outcome, groups and individuals who voted both yes and no came together to try to find solutions.
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