Local NewsAustin Divide Over Controversial Homelessness Ordinance Continues to Grow

The Austin City Council will consider a resolution clarifying the camping ordinance on October 17, but residents are as divided as ever on the growing homelessness crisis.
October 4, 2019
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The same day the Austin City Council postponed a vote on rescinding the camping ordinance instituted on July 1, a video of a homeless man writhing around on the ground and exposing his buttocks and genitals near Congress Avenue made the rounds on Twitter. 

Incidents like this becoming increasingly more common on social media.

Numerous, and often raucous, town halls have been held on the subject. The mayor and city council have been trying for over a month now to settle on a 90-day plan to mitigate the homelessness problem even as the camping ordinance has seemingly exacerbated the issue. 

While they may be nearing a stopgap measure that would be intended to reduce camping and lying in certain, high-traffic areas, the city government is not much closer to a solution than they were several months ago.

Today, Austin Police Chief Bryan Manley announced new directives in enforcing the camping and lying laws still on the books. He also stated he would like to see the original camping and lying ordinance restored, thus reinstating the policy prior to the controversial July 1 policy.

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The debate on the issue has sparked fiery responses from multiple sides, leaving the mayor and city council to try and temper emotions. 

The Texan spoke with or gathered statements on the issue from all sides of the debate.

The Mayor

The person facing the most criticism is undoubtedly Mayor Steve Adler. Just this week, Adler had two letters from prominent Texas politicians dropped on his desk, each blasting him for his role in the situation. 

First, Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX-21), who represents a portion of Austin that includes downtown, stated: “The new ordinance undermines security, harms private property of our citizens, hurts commerce, and endangers those it purports to help – the homeless.”

A couple of days later, Governor Greg Abbott’s letter announced his intention to step in unless the city can “demonstrate consequential improvement in the Austin homelessness crisis” by November 1.

To which the mayor responded, “Some see this letter as a threat. I want you to know, I understand the seriousness of this letter, but I choose to read this letter as an offer of assistance and this is not a city challenge, it is a statewide challenge.”

The Texan spoke with Mayor Adler earlier this week to get his more detailed thoughts on the situation. 

About Rep. Roy’s letter, Adler said that at the time of the interview he had not yet read it, but that “This is not just a local, state, or regional issue, this is a national issue, and we could use better support from our federal government.”

Adler said his top three priorities for the 90-day plan are: 1.) laying out very clearly the path toward ending camping and lying in the city — how we get people off the streets, 2.) demonstrating quickly that we understand the causes of this problem “like we did with youth and homeless veterans last year,” and 3.) have the city manager focus on those occupying the parks while preventing others from taking their place as they move into shelters.

When asked what unforeseen problems have arisen since the ordinance change, Adler said, “I had not anticipated just how many people would move out of the woods to safer places — although I expected it to happen some.”

Adler also said he didn’t anticipate “good samaritans in the community providing homeless individuals with tents”; the additional fundraising that some organizations helping the homeless would receive; and that “it would take [the city] this long to add greater clarity to where people could and couldn’t be.”

Much of the city government’s rhetoric has been focused on housing, but one obstacle to that is cases like Shannon who lives outside of Royal Blue Grocery

Homeless, Shannon prefers living on the street and does not want to be placed in a shelter.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler

Adler responded to this issue, saying, “The studies [from other cities experiencing this problem] suggest that there are very, very few people who would choose to remain on our streets if in fact they had a home they could move into.”

“Most who do not want to move into a home, don’t want to because there’s some level of barrier and they’re making a choice — it’s important that a component of our housing plan is to have few barriers,” Adler insisted.

The mayor proffered, “In June we committed to finding better and safer places for people to be, and I’m committed to that today.”

“As we identify more and more reasonable, and constructive, places for people to be, that comes with establishing places where people can’t be,” he continued. 

The city is trying to identify — and Adler clarified it must be done quickly — places that don’t create public safety and health risks.

Adler also stressed that he believes a lot can be done with the authority that the city manager and police chief have now.

This includes making clear that police will prohibit defecating and urinating in public; they will prohibit camping from blocking and impeding streets; identifying the least safe places for people to camp and lie, and helping move those outside the ARCH to safer areas.

In response to criticism that the July 1 ordinance change has exacerbated the homelessness problem in Austin, the mayor said, “That’s clearly not true — you solve homelessness by taking people that are on the streets and getting them off the streets. Simply moving them only moves the problem from one place to another.”

Adler has remained insistent on his approach with the camping ordinance and believes that increasing housing and services is the path towards alleviating the situation. 

The Council

Council members are, of course, not a monolith, but the body did vote handily in favor of the ordinance change in June.

Councilwoman Ann Kitchen — serving district five, which covers South Austin and a small part of downtown — spoke to The Texan about this issue.

Kitchen’s top priorities are developing a detailed implementation plan with deadlines and responsibilities, creating a dashboard to track progress on the issue, immediately identifying additional places homeless individuals can move to, and connecting them to housing and services.

“I am optimistic,” Kitchen said of her outlook on the situation, “as long as we quickly put in place a couple of things to connect people to services.”

Kitchen justified her optimism by pointing to her colleague Kathie Tovo, whose resolution includes a “Homeless Encampment Response Strategy” — which entails a “targeted way to connect people to housing” — and the clarification to the ordinance issued by the council.

In Kitchen’s assessment, “there is more agreement than disagreement” among councilmembers on this issue. 

“Some differences of opinion [within the body] exist on exactly where exactly the unsafe areas are,” she added.

“I hope we make significant progress within a month, but it will take a bit longer to get the full plan in place,” Kitchen specified.

Councilwoman Ann Kitchen

A similar deadline to Kitchen’s timetable is the governor’s November 1 ultimatum. Kitchen said, “I was a bit surprised by those statements because just this year the state withdrew some help they were providing.” 

Once such practice she identified was TXDOT helping clean up underpasses.

“I welcome any assistance that the state agencies can provide us,” she added.

Concerning APD Chief Manley’s call for reinstating the former ordinance, and the appetite for that on the council, Kitchen stated, “The clarification to the ordinance achieves the same purpose.”

Regarding the divisions this has caused, Kitchen stated, “I think the community as a whole is united in the primary goal: to connect people to housing and services.”

“Making progress on that goal is something everyone needs to see and addressing their concerns on where camping is safe and appropriate,” Kitchen said would go a long way towards alleviating those concerns.

Kitchen concluded by saying, “What’s important for the community is to come together to end homelessness — I don’t believe that’s not possible.”

Councilman Greg Casar, who has been a leading advocate of the camping ordinance, never responded to The Texan’s request for comment, office, despite repeated attempts.

The Opposition to the Ordinance

Perhaps the most well-known spokesman for the opposition is Travis County GOP Chairman, Matt Mackowiak. After the rule change, Mackowiak began circulating an online petition — which has to this point garnered just under 35,000 signatures — asking the city to rescind the decision.

Mackowiak testified in front of the city council and mayor at their meeting on September 18.

Stating plainly to the body, Mackowiak said, “This policy has been a disaster. It has been an absolute disaster for our city, and I say that more in sadness than anything else.”

Criticizing the city’s intention to ban camping and lying only on six high-traffic streets, Mackowiak said, “The people who are camping on those streets are going to move to other streets. And every other street in our city, every other neighborhood in our city is going to become less safe because you have cherry-picked six streets and decided to make them safe from homeless camping.”

Mackowiak then focused on what he sees as the most significant hurdle to jump on this issue: drug addiction and mental illness among the homeless. Pinpointing those two factors would allow the city to put all others not addicted or mentally unwell on a path to self-sufficiency, Mackowiak stressed.

Being critical of what he sees as the city essentially throwing money at the problem, Mackowiak asked the body, “If $30 million didn’t solve our homeless problem year after year, how is $62 million going to solve it?”

But concerns span the political divide. Social media has been filled with examples of self-identified liberals siding with Governor Greg Abbott over Mayor Adler and the city council. 

The homelessness crisis has seen a rise in citizens on social media documenting what they are seeing happen on the streets. 

Panel Discussion at UNT featuring Matt Mackowiak (Photo by Junebug Clark)

The Texan spoke with the individual behind the Austin Skidrow (AS) Twitter account under condition of anonymity — one of multiple anonymous accounts posting and reposting videos and pictures of interactions with homeless individuals — to get their take on the situation.

Having lived in Austin for some three decades, AS has seen Austin homelessness evolve from something that was always there — albeit relatively benign — into the situation today where “there are tents in all areas of the city and litter just about everywhere they congregate.” 

They added, “I’ve never seen Austin look so dirty.”

AS cited an incident where a confrontation between a business owner and homeless man sleeping on his property insisting “he ‘has the right to sleep anywhere in Austin cause a city ordinance.’” 

The Austinite is concerned even just the misunderstanding of the rule change, let alone the change itself, is emboldening homeless individuals to extend where they camp beyond what the ordinance change permits.

They would like to see the city identify places where the homeless can camp, establish a police presence in those areas, and provide restrooms and other services to them in those places.

According to a 2015 HUD study, 45 percent of homeless individuals were identified as having some degree of mental illness, and a quarter had a “severe” mental illness.

“It doesn’t make sense to dump a large population of people dealing with severe mental illness into the general population. It’s not good for them or us,” the Austinite added.

Frustrated that the city has “has completely ignored the citizens besides the homeless and the homeless activists,” AS is “not confident at all” in the city’s ability to solve this problem. 

Increasingly concerned with the direction Austin seems to be going — down the path of Los Angeles and San Francisco — AS sees this ordinance, along with other efforts to reduce penalties on crimes such as drug-related offenses, as exacerbating the problem.

The Supporters of the Ordinance

The original effort to change the ordinance was led by progressive Councilman Greg Casar and backed by Mayor Adler. But other groups have been pushing for a change like this for some time. 

One such organization is the Austin Justice Coalition (AJC).

The Texan spoke with Warren Burkley, a volunteer with AJC, about their advocacy on this issue. By organizing, providing testimony, and engaging with the homeless, AJC has continuously supported the city’s decision to rollback the camping and lying ban.

“We shouldn’t criminalize people for just existing,” Burkley said.

Burkley added, “Putting someone in jail for camping or lying while homeless does nothing to get rid of homelessness — they’re still homeless when they get out of jail.”

AJC and Burkley want to see the city government preserve the camping and lying ordinances as they currently stand.

Calling the decision a good first start, Burkley said, “We now need to focus on the services that get those people out of the cycle of homelessness.”

The city government has stated it needs between $55 million and $62 million in additional funding to address the crisis. Burkley added, “That money is needed for services and getting shelters built.”

When asked about the concern that this change has exacerbated occurrences of public defecation, Burkley stated, “If you’re uncomfortable with someone using the restroom in public, then you should pressure city council to provide a place for them to do that.”

“For the people experiencing homelessness, there has been an immediate positive change as a result of the ordinance change — these people can now sleep without disturbance,” Burkley proffered.

The real issue here, Burkley suggested, is affordable housing — which is “a way bigger, deeper issue that I’m not sure the city is ready to tackle at the moment.”

As time marches on under the new rules, one thing continues to fester: division amongst Austinites. 

The homelessness issue, and the city’s handling or mishandling of it, depending on whom one speaks with, has spotlighted a stark divide between concerned citizens and elected officials on the future they want for the city that they love.

Austin has long been known as a unique city with great food, great music, and a vibe often captured by the phrase “keep Austin weird.” 

Right now, the task may be more fundamental: keeping Austin functional.

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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 watching and quoting Monty Python productions.

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