Local NewsAustin Homeless Camping Ban Reinstatement Makes the May Ballot

The group behind the effort submitted over 26,000 valid signatures in only 50 days.
February 4, 2021
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A reinstatement of the camping and lying ban on public grounds in Austin will come before city voters this May.

A city spokesperson told The Texan, “Council will now have to decide whether to adopt the ordinance changes as written in the petition, or call an election for Saturday May 1. Council has until February 12 to make this decision and there is expected to be a special called meeting for Council to discuss these issues on February 9.”

Save Austin Now, the organization behind the petition effort, submitted over 26,000 valid signatures. The group collected them all in 50 days, and will now create a PAC to campaign for the ballot initiative about 80 days from now.

Co-founder of Save Austin Now and Travis County GOP chair Matt Mackowiak said in an emailed statement, “Today’s news is a welcome development for Austinites who only want to live in a safe and clean city.”

“Now Austinites can choose to fix this mess created by Greg Casar and Steve Adler. The Mayor and the City Council will never fix it. In fact, they are unconscionably making it worse. We must save our city on May 1st.”

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Neither Adler nor Casar responded to requests for comment by the time of publishing.

Joell McNew, president of SafeHorns, an organization made up of parents of University of Texas students, added, “We only wish the City of Austin had agreed to the request of the UT Police Chief in 2019 to exempt the UT campus from the repeal of the no-camping ordinance, but they refused.”

Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday stated, “The taxpaying citizens of Austin were never truly allowed to participate in the process of making changes to the city ordinance. Additionally, the Chief of Police was ignored on this important public safety issue. We believe it’s time for the community to have a say in an ordinance that drastically affects Austinites and our tourism industry.”

Their 2020 effort was rejected last-minute by the city clerk for not meeting the 20,000-signature threshold. Controversy abounded, however, as the clerk used a sampling method rather than validating each signature.

Though the sampling method is permitted within state code, Save Austin Now objected, believing they had secured the propositions spot on the November ballot. The group considered legal action but ultimately turned its sights to the May ballot. This time, the effort was successful, and now the campaign to convince voters begins.

Should the ban pass, Austin voters would overrule their city council’s 2019 ordinance that rescinded prohibitions on homeless individuals camping and lying on public grounds. Notably, the recission did not include city hall’s grounds.

The ordinance change spotlighted the city’s growing homeless problem, and a groundswell of citizens across the ideological spectrum have opposed it.

Businesses, especially those downtown, found themselves inundated with outbursts and safety hazards caused by homeless individuals. Community members showed up in droves to oppose the policy in town halls. And the divide between the council and its citizenry widened.

One neighborhood in particular faced a literal trash flood flowing from the creek bed’s homeless camp.

The election of conservative now-councilmember Mackenzie Kelly is at least partially attributable to the city’s camping policy.

In October of 2019, the council reinstated minor provisions of the camping ban but largely preserved the new structure.

Since then, the city’s been up creek without a paddle trying to contain a growing public relations problem. 

Governor Abbott has weighed in repeatedly on the issue, and did so again after the petition was submitted for review. 

“If Austin doesn’t reinstate the ban on homeless camping the state will do it for them,” tweeted Abbott. “Contrary to what Austin leaders think no one has a right to urinate & defecate wherever they want. Homelessness promoted by Austin has also endangered public safety.”

The governor has also stated his hopes for a statewide camping and lying ban this legislative session, a directive clearly aimed at, but not limited to, Austin.

Last month, just days after the group submitted the signatures, Mayor Steve Adler walked back his support for the city’s policy, saying it “is not working.” But he further stated his opposition to a full return to the pre-July 2019 policy.

Some council members have also recently laid out their own, much more neutered version of a camping ban reinstatement after the petition effort gained steam. That plan would not include any legal reprimand.

The city just made another multi-million purchase of a hotel to house homeless individuals.

But now the city’s voters will get their say on the policy that not only has warped Austin’s downtown environment but has made national news.

Update: After publishing, the Austin City Council passed an ordinance laying out framework to ban camping in four certain areas, but with no compulsory function to it.

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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.

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