As the workday came to a close on the relatively cool July afternoon, citizens packed the pews of Central Presbyterian Church at the corner of Eighth and Brazos.
Members of the Downtown Austin Alliance — some identified by their discernible red polos — facilitated ushering and organizing of the 400-person crowd there to listen to community leaders speak on homelessness in Austin and the recent ordinance passed by City Hall.
The rule change now permits lying or camping on public grounds, but excludes City Hall.
A little after five o’clock, the three panelists — Austin Police Chief Brian Manley, Austin’s Interim Homeless Strategy Officer Veronica Briseño, and VP of Investor Relations at Downtown Austin Alliance Bill Brice — and the moderator, Dean Angela Evans of the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs, took the stage.
“Not enough time has elapsed since the ordinance” to see the impact of the change, Manley stated. Manley repeated this statement often throughout the forum. But the police chief encouraged citizens to report incidents both for their own safety and to help establish more data APD can use.
He then told the crowd, however, it does affect APD’s response to situations that may not meet the threshold of “hazardous or dangerous.”
Manley added that the ordinance change has “not impact[ed] APD’s ability to deal with typical safety issues but have impacted more of the ‘quality of life’ issues such as camping in front of a business.”
Briseño, the city’s representative in the forum, discussed how she and others at the city government are looking to what other cities have done — or would have done differently — to respond to their homelessness problems.
She also mentioned programs they are hoping will stem the flow of problems accompanying increased homelessness — such as the purple trash bag pickup stations around town. Briseño then stressed the need for more housing for homeless individuals.
The three panelists all agreed that a “comprehensive plan” is needed that spells out the roles and responsibilities of the government, private sector, and citizenry in solving this issue. “We cannot enforce away the problem of homelessness,” Brice added.
With a per night homelessness rate of roughly 2,255 individuals, Brice said: “We are definitely on the same trajectory as those other cities (such as Seattle and Portland).”
The Texan spoke with Brice after the forum and he added that “10 or 12 years ago Seattle was where we are at now in terms of numbers of people experiencing homelessness.” Seattle now has over 12,000 homeless residents.
Brice said he is afraid that this ordinance and the problems coming with it are preventing the community from focusing on down-the-road prevention of the problem.
He added, “The problem comes when we don’t have places where people can be, which leads to deterioration into chronic homelessness.” “We must rebound people fast,” Brice stated.
When asked how the ordinance change is affecting the community’s ability to solve the issue, Brice stated, “We have an exacerbated condition on the street that is hard to rein back in.”
“We are concerned that as the visibility of the issue expands it divides the community even further,” Brice added.
He concluded, “We felt that there was no stakeholder process to engage the community about the various system changes” to address concerns before the change was made.
The panelists repeatedly touched on the need for more shelters and that the ARCH — the large homeless shelter on 7th Street — is overwhelmed each and every night.
The panelists also warned against visceral reactions and divisiveness to the city trying to solve its homelessness problem.
There has been a significant backlash since the ordinance change among Austin residents. This is illustrated by an online petition to rescind the policy “which is bad for tourism, the Austin economy, public safety, and public health.”
The Texan spoke to Matt Mackowiak — a political consultant, chairman of the Travis County Republican Party, and creator of the petition — about the opposition to the city government’s rule change.
“I’ve never seen an issue that has drawn such a unanimous, broad, and intense reaction like this one,” Mackowiak said. “This is not just Republicans getting mad about the policy,” he added.
Mackowiak said he believed the city was genuinely trying to alleviate the homeless problem, but the results of the policy have been so much worse than what he and others previously thought.
His petition was launched on July 17 and has since amassed over 15,000 signatures.
“The fact that we’ve gotten over 15,000 signatures in less than one week, with not one cent spent on advertising, is a reflection of the level of opposition existing on this issue,” Mackowiak said.
Mackowiak said an eye-opening moment for him was hearing from others that this problem wasn’t just affecting downtown, but neighborhoods throughout the city.
The petition has been criticized as not being only confined to Austin residents. An article on ThinkProgress, a progressive advocacy site, ran an article with the headline “Austin Republicans boast about petition to punish city’s homeless. Many signers weren’t from Austin.”
The author stated the organization did an analysis of the signers and stated, “a huge percentage of them are not actually Austin residents.”
However, it did not go into any further detail about the numbers it analyzed and instead listed only a handful of examples of signers who did not live in the city.
“If it were up to me, we would only have Austin residents sign it,” Mackowiak said.
Change.org does not allow limiting signers to a specific geographical location. Mackowiak added, “The vast majority of signers live in either Austin or Travis County.”
But, Mackowiak stated, “This policy affects more than just people living here — if you come to Austin to go to bars or restaurants or live music venues, this policy is affecting you.”
Mackowiak added that the ordinance has “Blurred the lines of what’s acceptable and what’s not” — referencing the picture of the makeshift camp on the property of a Discount Tire store the day the ordinance passed.
Mackowiak said lying on public sidewalks or in front of a business’ door has become more common based on what he’s seen.
Mackowiak also emphasized his concerns with human waste in these areas of camping on public property.
The purpose of the petition, Mackowiak said, is to show public opposition to the ordinance and present it to City Council at their next meeting. If they don’t change course, Mackowiak says he and others are considering a set of more direct options.
Austin City Council is scheduled to meet on August 8 to discuss its plan moving forward.
For a longer list of the topics discussed, questions asked, and statements made at last night’s forum, read my thread here.
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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.