The votes are in and it was a rough Saturday night for members of the Austin City Council, especially the architects of the camping ban repeal. That would be Council Member Greg Casar, former Mayor Pro Tem/current Travis County Attorney Delia Garza, current Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper Madison, and Council Member Pio Renteria. Casar was the originator and lead proponent of lifting the camping ban. His co-sponsors were Garza, Harper Madison and Renteria. Mayor Steve Adler was also instrumental in steering the proposal to passage. Ultimately the lifting of the more than twenty year old camping ban passed on a nine to two vote, with Council Members Alison Alter and Kathie Tovo voting no. Alter and Tovo argued that lifting the ban without a solid plan for housing people was premature and unwise.
As most readers likely know by now, Austin voters put the camping ban back in place by passing petition driven Proposition B, with 57% for and 43% against. The vote was indeed, as the American-Statesman put it, a “rebuke to City leadership.”
To be fair, the Council was trying to address a longstanding societal problem that was not anywhere near being entirely of their own making. Previous City leadership bears some responsibility and there are numerous other contributing factors beyond the City’s control, which we have listed before, but will do so again:
- decades of state policies that cut services and housing for the mentally ill;
- lack of a national or state strategy (although President Joe Biden now has a national plan to deal with homelessness);
- 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 with millions living only a few lost paychecks away from homelessness.
On the ground here in Austin right now the Austin Police Department and other City staff face the humanitarian crisis of removing people from the camps. And, the people in the camps face the crisis of where to go next.
It is a harsh outcome for the homeless, but the core message from voters appears to be that the Council went too far, that civilization was breaking down.
There are a multitude of elements to this issue and the Austin Independent will have further coverage in coming days. Today we will concentrate on reviewing why voters might have come to the conclusion that the Council had set off the disintegration of social order. We will also look at the voting patterns that led to the defeat of Prop B. We will begin with the latter.
Save Austin Now, the group which got Prop B on the ballot through a petition drive and conducted the winning campaign, maintained that it was a bipartisan organization. Its co-leaders were Republican Matt Mackowiak and Democrat Cleo Petricek. The bipartisan claim met with a lot of skepticism, especially from Prop B opponents. Mackowiak after all is the Chair of the Travis County County Republican Party while Petricek was not well known in Democratic Party circles. Plus, there is really no doubt that Republicans, led by Governor Greg Abbott, saw the issue as a political opening — provided them courtesy of Greg Casar and the Austin City Council. Abbott, Mackowiak and other Republicans definitely jumped on it.
In the end, however, something of an actual bipartisan coalition emerged in favor of Proposition B, at least at the ballot box. The measure could not have passed without the support of thousands of Austin Democrats. And, it’s not like all of a sudden a bunch of Democrats turned into Republicans, or failed to realize that they were joining a coalition that included Republicans, when they voted for Proposition B. If anything the outcome could have been a lot more lopsided if not for Democratic values and loyalty. Many people voted no even though they considered the repeal of the camping ban a failed policy — out of humane concern over what will happen to people when they are moved out of the encampments. If the referendum had instead been on whether the Council had mishandled the issue, the margin would probably have been similar to the trouncing dealt to the strong mayor proposal — 89% against.
We provide more detail on the voting breakdown later, and in a separate article, but now let’s look at the conditions on the ground that led to such a stinging “rebuke to City leadership.”
First of all, incidents of camping related violence happened quickly. For just one example, in August 2019 a jogger along Lady Bird Lake, west of Lamar Boulevard, took a break and walked down to the water’s edge. A man camping in a nearby gazebo threatened the jogger with a knife and told him to get out of the area. According to press reports, the jogger withdrew to a nearby area, but then the camper began chasing him with the knife. The jogger ran across Cesar Chavez in heavy traffic and managed to get away. Witnesses called police who arrived and arrested the knife wielding man.
Not long after that a young woman was attacked as she walked downtown and knocked to the ground by a homeless man who appeared seemingly out of nowhere. “He hit me on the side of the face and knocked me off my feet and onto my back,” the victim told Brittany Ford of CBS Austin.
Soon after that the man’s sister saw a news report on the attack and realized that her brother was the perpetrator. Horrified, she contacted Ford and provided background on how her brother came to be living downtown.
She told Ford that her brother had mental health and drug addiction problems and had been living voluntarily in a group home. Then, she said, he saw a news report that the City Council was allowing camping in downtown Austin. The sister reported that her brother said, “’I’m going to live in downtown Austin, you can camp out anywhere you want to in Austin.’”
Fighting back tears, the sister told Ford, “When I saw this young lady it broke my heart that my brother had for no reason, unprovoked, attacked her.”
She added that there were other people like her brother who would choose “to leave their homes because now they can,” and there are “going to be more victims.” She also called for the Council to increase mental health funding, including housing opportunities.
Cleo Petricek of Save Austin Now signed up for Citizens Communication and showed Council Ford’s story. That seemed to have no effect.
A Failure to Grasp or Acknowledge Complexity
Clearly not all homeless people, or anywhere near all of them, are violent. Many are just down on their luck or suffered setbacks that could have put many of us out in the streets — especially in our sometimes hard hearted society. At the same time there are among the homeless a number of mentally ill people, people with substance abuse problems, and some violent people — with some overlap among those categories. Other people living on the streets are often the most frequent victims of violent homeless people. It is a very complex issue, but it is not apparent at all that Casar and allies were aware of, or acknowledged, such complexity before acting.
And, violence wasn’t the only problem. There were also a number of fires — including of the historic fire tower along Town Lake and at least one where flames leaped up to a highway ramp leading from Ben White onto IH 35.
Then homeless people began moving into City parks, which was actually not allowed under the Council’s camping ban repeal. Due to COVID protocols the City did not remove people from the park. Then more came.
Downtown residents reported numerous encounters with aggressive panhandlers and other incidents.
It might be overstating it a bit, but the view here is that voters felt like the Council was letting civilization slip away. For years I said that the people of Austin will choose progressives to rule, but progressives have to take care of basic services. Now I think that needs to be updated to the people of Austin will let progressives rule, but they have to keep civilization in place.
A voter who who lives near the massive encampments along East Riverside Drive, and had witnessed violence there, summarized it well when explaining to Austonia why she had decided to vote for Prop B: “I’m sorry, but as a member of society there are certain rules and regulations.” A majority of voters evidently determined that the Council lost sight of that and so stepped in to correct it.
Photo at top by Daryl Slusher. Part of East Riverside Encampment, May 4, 2021.
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