Elections 2021Local NewsA Look Behind Austin Voters’ Bipartisan Blow to the City’s Homeless Camping Policy

Almost two years ago, the City of Austin began its experiment in widespread public homeless camping — and on Tuesday it will end.
May 10, 2021
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What was once old will become new again as the City of Austin’s public camping prohibition once again will go into effect on Tuesday, May 11. In a resounding statement, Democrats, Republicans, and Independents coalesced around the ballot box to end the city’s skid row experiment. 

“The vote count should be representative of the community,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler warned as the early voting period wound down. “So far, those early voting are not. They’re much, much older and much, much more Republican.”

The biggest ticket item on the May 1 ballot was a prospective reinstatement of the city’s public camping ban. When the dust settled, Adler’s effort to preserve the status quo had gone down in flames along with his narrative.

Nearly three-quarters of early voters had Democratic primary voting histories or skewed left based on modeling while only a quarter had Republican track records or leaned right.

Spearheading the ballot initiative effort was Save Austin Now — a group formed solely for the purpose of beating back the council’s policy change. At its helm are two Austinites, each longtime residents that are strikingly dissimilar. One is Matt Mackowiak, a political consultant and county GOP chair. The other, Cleo Petricek, is a Democratic activist and mother.

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The pair represented and harnessed bipartisan opposition to the ultra-progressive city council’s decision to allow homeless camping and laying on most public grounds. Preliminary estimates showed that 40 percent of Democrats, 88 percent of Independents, and 92 percent of Republicans all voted for the camping ban reinstatement.

On the seventh floor of the Fairmount Hotel in downtown Austin, the pair, along with those most closely involved in the effort, celebrated their accomplishment 23 months in the making on election night.

An Abrupt Turn

In July of 2019, the city council’s ordinance became effective, legalizing homeless camping on most public land across the city. Tent encampments sprouted up overnight on Austin’s boulevards, riverbanks, and under its overpasses. Elected officials back then argued that city policy was making it a crime to be homeless.

Citations for public camping would beget citations for missing court or failing to pay fines — creating another revolving door in the criminal justice system — causing those like Adler and Councilman Greg Casar to argue a drastic change was needed.

Immediately, an incentive to leave shelters and live on the streets was established. From 2019 to 2020, Austin’s total homeless population jumped by over 750 people. The unsheltered percentage increased 45 percent while its sheltered percentage decreased 20 percent — leaving Austin with the highest unsheltered rate among Texas’ most populated cities.

The city canceled its 2021 count out of COVID-19 precaution.

In the months following the ordinance change, violent and property crimes involving homeless persons as perpetrators, victims, or both increased substantially.

Businesses endured a public safety onslaught at their front doors with homeless individuals becoming more aggressive to patrons and employees alike, resulting in more frequent outbursts.

Co-owner of Royal Blue Grocery, Craig Staley, told The Texan at the time about one of his downtown store locations, “What [the city council] undid in three weeks is now going to take three months to fix, and I don’t know if we’ll still be open by then after dark on Congress Avenue.”

Staley said the 7-Eleven next to his establishment had to call the police as many as 20 times in one day because of outbursts from aggressive homeless individuals.

But in talking with business owners, these issues were only put into hyperdrive after the ordinance — they had already been steadily increasing beforehand. After July 1, the Omni Hotel downtown began recommending to its guests that they avoid walking anywhere from their hotel, no matter how close in proximity to their destination.

A community survey conducted by the city at the end of 2019 found that 55 percent of Austinites felt unsafe walking around downtown.

Business owners, like citizens at large, became frustrated with the council’s lack of response to their concerns. Citizens showed up in droves to town halls in the weeks following the ordinance change. At the tail end of August, the Central Presbyterian Church hosted the first town hall and was packed to the brim with 400 people — most of whom were upset with the ordinance.

A month later, another town hall was held at the convention center at which over 1,000 attended. 

Throughout the nearly two years of the policy’s existence, the council focused on a strategy of purchasing unused hotels and renovating them into housing units for the homeless. Since 2018, the city has thrown hundreds of millions of dollars at the homeless issue, mostly for housing strategies.

The city eventually tweaked its policy and prohibited camping or laying within 15 feet of a business entryway.

“They failed to roll out a policy that was either safe or viable and it was an issue of the city failing to provide a safe community for all,” Petricek emphasized.

Their latest three expenditures, all either hotels or motels, collectively amounted to $24 million for 227 units of housing — amounting to nearly $106,000 per unit.

The issue was an instant galvanizer, turning many previously content or disengaged citizens into activists.

One of those citizens was Petricek, already an activist but one who went into overdrive on this issue as circumstances escalated. Before the new ordinance, she successfully torpedoed the planned South Austin homeless shelter that was going to be constructed near residential neighborhoods and schools.

Petricek’s biggest concern as a mother was that children were increasingly subjected to obscenities. 

“It wasn’t just about eyesores and tents in places, it was about illicit acts being done in front of children,” she stressed.

Petricek spoke at nearly every town hall and council meeting that discussed the camping ordinance, which made her a prime candidate to pair with another frequent critic of the council: Mackowiak.

Building a Political Machine

What began as an online petition by Mackowiak morphed into a fully-fledged political machine and apparatus.

Launched shortly after the ordinance change, Mackowiak’s petition now has over 127,000 signatures. But the effort fell on deaf ears in city hall.

“One of the reasons we are where we are,” Mackowiak told The Texan on election night, “is that city hall makes it next to impossible for average citizens to have their voices heard.”

Petricek echoed this sentiment in an interview, stating further that she hasn’t received any response from Adler on the homeless issue since August of 2019.

In Mackowiak’s view, the city was “committing suicide from a policy standpoint.” The public safety issue alone, disregarding all its indirect economic consequences, was a clear abrogation of the elected officials’ responsibility, he posited.

Those petition signatures morphed into a makeshift army — the likes of which every campaign dreams about.

On January 3, a homeless man out on personal recognizance (PR) bond for a burglary charge entered an Austin restaurant and stabbed three people, killing one. The incident gained national attention and was a direct corollary to the city council’s 2017 ordinance prioritizing PR bonds for defendants deemed indigent at the expense of other considerations.

In February 2020, Mackowiak and Petricek gave up trying to persuade or pressure the council into changing its tune. They launched Save Austin Now and its petition effort to place the reinstatement question before voters. Along with the Austin Police Association, SafeHorns — a public safety advocacy organization made up of University of Texas parents — and others, the group already had significant support.

All they needed was 20,000 valid voter signatures to get the ordinance on the November 2020 ballot, and had four and a half months to do it.

Then a pandemic hit.

Gathering signatures in the traditional in-person method became impossible. The group was forced to have individuals print off their own petition, sign it, and mail it in — not an ideal situation for a campaign.

But in those months, the height of the pandemic, the group cobbled together roughly 24,000 signatures. After a two-week waiting period, using a sampling method allowed by state law, the city clerk rejected the petition judging there were not enough valid signatures to meet the threshold.

Mackowiak maintains there were enough valid signatures and looked into legal options. But it became clear to the group they had to push ahead.

“The city is on the right path,” Adler said in reaction.

Nothing made Austin’s homeless travails as painfully and unavoidably obvious as the August 2020 trash flood which left the backyards next to the Windsor Park creek awash with feces, needles, and miscellaneous garbage.

The events of the following months — a contentious election, Adler’s November escapade to Cabo while directing Austinites to stay home, and a still-growing body of evidence of homeless-related struggles — further galvanized the community and especially those involved in the petition effort.

All of these issues created enough momentum for an electoral upset and a boon to Save Austin Now’s cause. Conservative Mackenzie Kelly knocked off incumbent Jimmy Flannigan, campaigning significantly on the homeless issue. Kelly, having long been involved with Save Austin Now, provided Mackowiak and Petricek an ally in city hall.

After the new year, the petition effort endured, and in 50 days, now having learned from the last try, the group submitted over 26,000 valid signatures, securing the proposition’s place on the ballot.

But rather than adopting the petitioners’ ballot language, the city council scribbled its own that emphasized the reinstatement’s creation of a “criminal offense and a penalty” — repeating that phrase three times in the language — rather than the petitioners’ language which emphasized its prohibitive nature.

Save Austin Now sued the city and achieved a modest victory with the Texas Supreme Court forcing the council to slightly revise its language.

“I think they thought their usual games of making something partisan that’s not partisan — of using lies, deception, and smear tactics — would work again but it was clear from the start this policy was failing the entire city, the homeless included,” said Mackowiak.

And once it became clear they had secured enough signatures to make the ballot, Adler slightly walked back his support for the city’s strategy, saying it is “no longer working.” But he remained staunchly opposed to a camping ban reinstatement.

During the two-month campaign, Save Austin Now raised $1.75 million from 3,000 donors — almost unheard of for a ballot initiative — and pounded the pavement getting their message out.

When the time for voting came, the ballot proposition clearly invigorated Austinites. Early voting turnout nearly doubled the May election in 2016 and that trend held once all the votes were counted on election night.

Save Austin Now’s get-out-the-vote operation was extensive. Just before polls closed on Election Day, the group released a survey identifying 7,500 likely voters, which produced a projected outcome of 60 percent “for” and 40 percent “against.”

Proposition B’s final tally was 57 percent for and 43 percent against, almost exactly consistent with their modeling.

“I’ve run a lot of campaigns in my life, but this is clearly the most effective one I’ve run,” said Mackowiak. “Battles are won or lost before they’re even fought. They’re won based on where they’re fought — we picked the right issue, created an army, and raised an unprecedented amount of resources.”

“People are going to study what we did here.”

“We had a tremendous victory tonight. But it’s not about us — it’s not even about the organization — it’s about the city,” he concluded.

Victory and What Lies Ahead

They labored their way into becoming an Austin political force — a formidably bipartisan one — and remain resolved not to just take their lot and head home.

“This was never a partisan issue,” Petricek stated, “and it was extremely frustrating to see the mayor repeat that, but the data proved this was something that had wide support.”

In defeat, both Adler and Casar sidestepped substantial acknowledgment of their rout. Once the results were clear, Casar said, “The overwhelming majority of Austinites share a common goal, no matter how folks voted on Prop B: Get people from tents into homes.”

Adler echoed the sentiment, saying, “The Prop B campaign and the vote, on both sides, have to be seen as an expression of the popular will to end tenting.”

Addressing the two biggest advocates of the original recission, Mackowiak added, “Steve Adler and Greg Casar, seeing these results, they should, first off, apologize to the city — both the residents and the homeless — and secondly, readdress their direction on homelessness.”

He added that the city’s strategy needs a recalibration focused on successful models like Haven for Hope in San Antonio, a compound on which homeless people camp and have access to real, accessible services.

“If the council is ready to really focus on successful models, I want to be a part of that and Save Austin Now will be a big part of that. But if they want to triple down on failed strategies then not only am I not going to be a part of that, but I’m going to fight it — and we have an army now,” he concluded.

Petricek sees their role ahead in continuous education of the community to “combat the misconceptions and outright lies” stemming from some elected leaders.

In their separate interviews, Mackowiak and Petricek each reiterated one final message: “We are not done. This is only the end of the beginning.”

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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.