Criminal JusticeLocal NewsAs Voters Mull Public Camping Ban, Austin Ranks First Among Major Texas Cities in Unsheltered Homelessness

Since the City of Austin's recission of its public camping ban, its unsheltered homeless population has risen substantially.
April 29, 2021
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Through the full early voting period, Travis County voter turnout is substantially higher than other recent local elections, nearly eclipsing two times the 2016 early voting turnout. 

Unquestionably, the main driver of this wave is Austin’s Proposition B, a reinstatement of the city’s public camping and laying ban — a response to the growing unsheltered homeless population.

In July of 2019, the city’s recission of its public camping prohibition went into effect. In turn, tent encampments sprouted up on boulevards and under highways. The council justified the move as one that would slow the revolving door of its homeless population in and out of the criminal justice system. The policy’s two biggest advocates — Mayor Steve Adler and Councilman Greg Casar — defended it by saying the city should not be “criminalizing homelessness.”

Instead, violent and property crime involving homeless individuals — as perpetrators, victims, or both — immediately increased in the months following according to Austin Police Department (APD) statistics.

Creating an unmistakable incentive for homeless individuals to spurn shelters and live on the streets, the 2020 homeless “point in time” survey found a 45 percent increase in its unsheltered population and a 20 percent decrease in its sheltered count. Austin’s total homeless population grew 11 percent from the previous year’s survey — eclipsing 2,500. 

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The city postponed its 2021 survey due to pandemic precaution.

Feces on walkways, public masturbation, altercations, and out of control propane fires escalated and the national spotlight flowed in like Summer 2020’s literal trash flood. Public pressure from the community and businesses caused the city council to slightly walk back its policy, reinstating a camping and laying prohibition within 15 feet of a business entryway in October of 2019.

But since that move, the policy has remained set with the city council choosing instead to focus on purchasing and retrofitting hotels — spending $24 million on 227 units of permanent housing for the homeless.

Austin is not the only city with a sizable and growing homeless population. Part of the reason it gets such attention is that it’s the state capital. Its unabashedly progressive leadership also serves as a convenient political punching bag for state Republicans. 

But the umbrage aimed at Austin, its elected leaders, and their policies by no means originates solely from the political right.

On homelessness, Austin has done less with more than other big cities in Texas — and its opening of the floodgates with the 2019 recission has sped up the process.

As of the latest point in time count measures, Austin has neither the highest total count nor the highest per capita population compared with Texas’ other five biggest cities. The latest data for each city show:

  • Dallas – 4,471 total, 332 per capita
  • Houston – 3,055 total, 131 per capita
  • San Antonio – 2,932 total, 196 per capita
  • Austin – 2,506 total, 260 per capita
  • Fort Worth – 1,234 total, 131 per capita
  • El Paso – 809 total, 118 per capita

But when measuring the unsheltered count, Austin stands apart from the rest:

  • Austin – 63 percent of total population, 163 per capita
  • Houston – 49 percent of total population, 65 per capita
  • San Antonio – 43 percent of total population, 85 per capita
  • Fort Worth – 39 percent of total population, 53 per capita
  • Dallas – 36 percent of total population, 120 per capita
  • El Paso – 20 percent of total population, 23 per capita

The unsheltered count isn’t directly correlative to each city’s own camping policy, but Austin’s sharp rise in tandem with its 2019 ordinance is descriptive. As mentioned above, Austin’s code prohibits camping and laying within 15 feet of a business entryway, on city hall property, or parks. Other than that, public land is fair game unless officers determine there is a threat to public health or safety.

Next-closest to Austin on the per capita shanty-town hierarchy is Dallas, which has a strict prohibition on camping and sleeping on public grounds. But the city’s unsheltered share of its total homeless population is second lowest among the six cities — a stark difference from the capital.

In 2017, Houston issued a strong prohibition against camping in public places. The policy isn’t strictly enforced, however, and Houston’s big encampments are generally concentrated in a few areas away from residential neighborhoods. The city credits its sharp homeless population decrease through the last decade to coordination between organizations and funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Texas’ second highest populated city, San Antonio, prohibits public camping outside of city-designated areas and prohibits sitting or laying on public rights-of-ways in the central business district.

Fort Worth, meanwhile, prohibited camping on private properties without authorization from the owners back in 2019 — shortly after Austin rescinded its ban. Interestingly, Fort Worth has no such prohibition on public grounds.

But an informal report from the city manager to the city council on April 6 provides more insight into Fort Worth’s public grounds approach. It states, “[D]uring the pandemic response, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the homeless be given greater leeway to live outdoors as opposed to congregate living indoors where the viral spread would be riskier. In this regard, staff have been more lenient in some open space and public areas, but have continued to enforce camping along major highways and residential areas.”

If officials identify health and safety concerns at public encampments, the campers are ordered to move.

Among the top six, El Paso has the least severe problem on its hands with both the lowest per capita homeless population and unsheltered percentage. The city prohibits camping in public parks without authorization from the city council.

Because of typically high costs of living and non-economic factors like drug use and mental illness, every city in America is dealing with homelessness to one degree or another. But Austin’s sudden and recent explosion of its unsheltered homeless count parallels the considerable shift of its public camping policy.

Once it became clear the latest petition effort to restore the camping ban would make the May 1 ballot, Adler partially walked back his support for the policy, saying it “is not working.” Nonetheless, Adler remains opposed to the full reinstatement of the ban.

And due to the petition effort’s success, that decision is out of his hands at the moment. Austin has long had a homeless population and will continue to regardless of what happens Saturday. But approval of Proposition B this weekend would represent another in a short line of recent public rebukes to the progressive city council.

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Brad Johnson

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.