87th LegislatureState HouseAustin Homeless Camping Ban Featured in Heated Committee Exchange Between Lawmakers

After Austin's two-year run with almost zero limitations on public camping by homeless individuals, the State of Texas is poised to ban the policy.
March 25, 2021
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Since 2019, homeless camping on public grounds has been thrust into the limelight as the City of Austin rescinded most of its prohibitions on camping and laying. The capital city’s roadsides are scattered with tents and its sidewalks crowded with panhandlers.

The state legislature has frequently scolded Austin for its policy, but now can actually do something about as the legislative session is in full swing.

One bill pursuing such action is Rep. Giovanni Capriglione’s (R-Southlake) House Bill (HB) 1925 that would ban the practice across the entire state.

Violations of the law would be a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a fine no greater than $500.

“This bill does not make being homeless illegal in Texas,” Capriglione stated.

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“There is nobody who believes the current homeless situation is right. But there are a lot of people who believe that the current [Austin policy] is wrong and it’s a humanitarian issue.”

He was pressed by Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) on whether the bill would reduce homelessness. “Show me where in the bill this will actually reduce homelessness,” she stated.

“It was a vicious cycle of giving citations to those who were homeless and creating a revolving door in and out of jail that was left on the records of those people making it more difficult to get out of homelessness.”

Capriglione responded, “The City of Austin is doing a far worse job in solving its homeless problem than other cities in the state. The system here is untenable.”

“This bill does not provide anything except push people back into the woods,” Howard countered.

The policy left an unmistakable incentive for homeless individuals to leave shelters and live on the streets. After the policy was instituted, the sheltered count decreased 20 percent while the unsheltered count increased 45 percent.

To address the issue, the city council has invested millions of dollars in purchasing hotels to retrofit as shelters for the homeless.

Dianna Grey, Austin’s homeless strategy officer, offered a blistering testimony against the bill, stating, “The idea that people are homeless because no camping ban exists is, frankly, magical thinking. They were here before.” Grey reiterated Howard’s arguments that the bill is lacking in substantive teeth.

Meanwhile, Vice President of Investor Relations for the Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA) Bill Brice testified for the bill. “We’re supporting this bill because of the increasingly unsafe conditions downtown … The current conditions in downtown Austin are out of control.”

DAA is the organization tasked with cleaning up downtown, and is a public-facing arm for the city as its employees patrol the area in red polos picking up trash.

The bill further allows the state to designate specific areas for camping, such as Camp R.A.T.T. in Austin.

This issue has been a focal point for state versus local conflict between Governor Greg Abbott and Austin Mayor Steve Adler.

Currently, a ballot initiative is set for the May 1 local election in which Austinites have the ability to reinstate the original camping policy in place before the city council’s recission. Adler has positioned himself, as has most of the city council, staunchly against the ballot question.

But he has wavered slightly on his brash support for the council’s 2019 action — stating earlier this year after the petition’s success became clear that the city’s policy was “not working.”

If passed and signed by the governor, the legislation will take effect on September 1, 2021, well after the results of the May election are known.

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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.