87th LegislatureState HouseStatewide Homeless Camping Ban Approved in Texas House

Days after Austin voters affirmed a ballot proposition reinstating a public camping ban, the Texas House took the first step toward banning the practice statewide.
May 5, 2021
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In a rebuke over a year in the making, the Texas House of Representatives gave initial approval to a statewide ban on homeless camping — aimed tacitly, if not directly, at the City of Austin’s near-two-year experiment in public camping.

House Bill (HB) 1925 by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione (R-Southlake) passed on second reading by a vote of 85 to 56 on Wednesday. Eight Democratic members voted with Republicans in support of the bill. They were Reps. Rafael Anchía (D-Dallas), Ryan Guillen (D-Rio Grande City), Abel Herrero (D-Robstown), Tracy King (D-Uvalde), Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville), Terry Meza (D-Irving), Richard Peña Raymond (D-Laredo), and John Turner (D-Dallas).

“I want to be clear,” Capriglione said while laying out his bill, “this bill does not criminalize homelessness.”

Rep. Vikki Goodwin (D-Austin) stated in opposition, “I hate the homeless problem in Austin, but this bill does nothing to solve the root problem.”

The legislation revokes grant funding for any city that violates its provision and tasks the attorney general with seeking injunctive relief against an offending city.

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Opponents objected — echoing the city council’s original justification for rescinding the ban in the first place — saying the policy would burden homeless individuals with fines they cannot pay.

An amendment clarifying that recreational camping in public parks and beach access plan campsites are exempt was tacked onto the bill.

However, some of the bill’s opposition was successful with tacking on amendments. One successful amendment was a requirement that officers notify the homeless individual about alternative housing, “if reasonable and appropriate” contact a government official or non-profit organization representative, and provide information on human trafficking.

Others included allowing a homeless individual arrested to secure their personal property and a specific carve-out for camping on the property of a homeless shelter.

The legislation is in direct response to the City of Austin’s nearly two-year experiment with rescinding its camping ban prohibition. Back in June 2019, the city council’s approved ordinance went into effect, allowing homeless individuals to camp and lay on any city public property except some parks or the city hall.

Immediately, the effects of the ordinance became clear. Encampments popped up under highway overpasses, tents dotted banks of Lady Bird Lake, and sidewalks became scattered with makeshift campsites.

The epicenter of the effects was downtown, but it also extended into surrounding neighborhoods as well. Businesses became inundated with problematic interactions with homeless individuals daily. One 7-Eleven store on Congress Ave. called the police “as many as 20 times in one day.”

Pedestrian interactions with homeless individuals increased as well, with panhandling becoming even more frequent. But more aggressive behavior increased, too. The Austin Police Department reported statistics showing a 14 percent increase in “Part I Violent” crime from July through September with the ordinance in effect.

After a few months, the city slightly reversed its policy, prohibiting camping and laying within 15 feet of a business’s entryway.

Last Saturday, Austin voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot proposition to reinstate the public camping ban. After a narrowly failed effort last year, the group behind the petition effort, Save Austin Now, succeeded in gathering over 20,000 voter signatures.

Governor Greg Abbott has thrown his political weight behind the effort to pass Proposition B while city leaders have opposed it. Austin Mayor Steve Adler acknowledged the current strategy “is not working,” but maintains opposition to the pre-July 2019 policy.

Displeasure with the current city council’s decisions, especially on homeless camping, undoubtedly played a factor in Mackenzie Kelly’s upset victory last year over incumbent Jimmy Flannigan — putting the first conservative on the council in years.

HB 1925 must pass another House vote before moving to the other chamber. The bill was on the floor last week, but was recommitted to committee after a valid point of order was called.

The results of Saturday’s referendum provided a substantial gauge of Austin resident’s feelings about the council’s policies.

But with the state’s legislation now moving, Texas is finishing what Austin started.

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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.