Homeless Camping Ban in Hands of Austin Voters

Texas’ capital city had a public camping ban in place for 23 years before it was repealed in 2019. Austinites are now voting on whether to revive it.

Tents are seen in a homeless encampment on East 7th Street in Austin, Texas, along with a Vote No on Prop B sign. (Courthouse News photo/Madison Venza)

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.” 

A man poses with his art in an homeless encampment on East 7th Street in Austin, Texas. (Courthouse News photo/Madison Venza)

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.

Nearly two hours south of Austin, the city of San Antonio has been celebrated across the state, and even by Republican Governor Greg Abbott, as a model of how to address homelessness.

Katie Vela is the executive director of the South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless, or SARAH, a homelessness care provider in San Antonio. She stressed the importance of “using the right tool for the job,” whether that be care provided to people out in the community, in a housing facility, or through a recovery program. 

A homeless encampment on East 7th Street in Austin, Texas. (Courthouse News photo/Madison Venza)

A lack of affordable housing and access to health care compounds problems for those onto the streets, leading to the surge in homelessness seen in Austin.

“If you are deciding between paying rent and paying for medications, that becomes very challenging for [people] to maintain housing,” Vela said.

In response to camping bans and ordinances, Vela said that she “does not see a camping ban as addressing the root cause of the problem.” Vela agrees with ECHO’s Mollica that camping bans make it harder for SARAH and ECHO to reach those who are most vulnerable, pushing them into more dangerous areas of the community.

“If there is ever criminal activity or something that threatens people’s safety, they certainly need to contact the police and get support, but I would urge people to write to elected officials and urge them to look for compassionate solutions,” said Vela. She encouraged anyone concerned about homelessness in their community to advocate for getting housing and services to address the root cause of the issue.

In the long term, ECHO, in partnership with Austin, sees housing as the way to overcome the issue. But in the short term there is no housing available. At last count, ECHO reported just 296 of the city’s 3,285 beds were available to the 1,574 unsheltered people living in Austin. 

Between now and the time it takes to procure or develop such housing, the homeless will just have to be tended to at encampments around the city. Austin passed the Homeless Encampment Assistance Link, or HEAL, initiative earlier this month, with the goal of connecting the homeless to housing and services to help people exit homelessness. HEAL aims to obtain more housing by authorizing the city to purchase several motels to serve as temporary shelters. The initiative also leaves open the possibility for re-banning public camping in areas that are deemed unsafe. 

Camping bans have become an issue statewide. For Governor Abbott, it is a priority in his legislative agenda. He has proposed withholding funding to cities that will not enforce a camping ban. Abbott may see his goal realized with two new bills – one in the house, HB 1925, and one in the Senate, SB 987 – that would ban public camping. Similar to Austin’s Prop B, the measures would make camping in a public area a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a fine up to $500.  

Austin’s homeless population has been steadily increasing in recent years. There are approximately 2,255 homeless people in the Austin and Travis County area, according to a 2020 count that showed an 11% growth in the overall number of people experiencing homelessness in Texas’ capital city. It was also estimated last year that there were 25,848 people experiencing homelessness in Texas, making up nearly 5% of the overall homeless population in the country, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Austin has canceled its 2021 homeless count.

The last day to vote on Prop B is Saturday, May 1. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

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