AUSTIN, Texas (CN) --- Austin’s storied past dealing with homelessness is headed toward a new chapter.
On Saturday, Austinites will for the first time have a chance to decide whether to again make it a crime for anyone to camp within city limits. Proposition B seeks to reinstate a criminal penalty for persons sleeping in the city outside of designated camping areas and for obstructing public sidewalks by either sitting or lying down. But Mayor Steve Adler, City Council members and homeless service providers are fighting to keep Prop B from becoming law.
Beginning in 1996, the city of Austin made it a crime to camp in any public area. After a year of the ban being in effect, thousands of citations had been issued, the majority of which went unpaid, leading to arrest warrants.
In the years to come, critics argued that the fines were issued to people who would be at a disadvantage to pay, guaranteeing them a criminal record that would drive a wedge between the homeless and their ability to find employment or housing.
In 2017, that very argument was backed by a city audit over Austin’s response to the homelessness issue. Auditors recommended an end to the camping ban because it created "issues for people attempting to exit homelessness."
In place of the ban, the city was encouraged to use Housing First strategies to address the issue. Housing First is a homeless assistance approach that prioritizes housing for people, providing a platform for them to recover and exit homelessness.
Two years after auditors made their recommendations, Mayor Adler and the City Council ended Austin's 23-year-old public camping ban by passing a city ordinance that eliminates criminal penalties for public camping. In a 2019 interview with radio station KUT 90.5, Austin Police Department Assistant Chief Justin Newsom said, "Any public space now ... that you are not completely blocking the ability for someone to move past, is legal for you to camp on now".
Almost immediately after the city ended its ban, Matt Mackowiak, chairman of the Travis County GOP, and Cleo Petricek, an Austin Democratic Party activist, together launched Save Austin Now PAC.
In January, Save Austin Now submitted a petition with the required 20,000 signatures to create Prop B, a public camping ban for the May 2021 special election ballot. This followed a previous attempt to create a voter-backed camping ban for the 2020 ballot, but that petition came up short on signatures, according to the city clerk.
Prop B, if passed, would again make it a criminal offense to camp in an undesignated area of Austin, along with panhandling at night or in an aggressive manner, or sitting and lying down in the downtown and University of Texas campus area.
Petricek, who also started the S.A.F.E. project in South Austin to respond to homelessness, said that the issue with encampments has “never been about the eye sore, it’s about [addressing] the criminal activity within these camps." If Prop B passes, Petricek believes it will help drive those living in encampments to seek assistance and bring a reduction in illegal activity.
“Having a camping ban helps compel people to seek services and shelter… there needs to be some type of safe campground or location [for homeless people to go] while permanent structures are being built," she said.
Matt Mollica, executive director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, or ECHO, sees camping bans, much like city officials do, as another trap for homeless in the criminal justice system, but believes real progress will come when more affordable housing is created.
Camping bans "have absolutely no impact on compelling people into services,” Mollica said. He argues such bans may even have the opposite effect, making those with no place to go less trusting of the services available to them.