Despite Governor’s threats, Austin Mayor doesn’t see Council reinstating camping ban

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin Mayor Steve Adler said that in recent weeks he’s received thanks from dozens of women in Austin who are experiencing homelessness.

The thanks, Adler says, stems from the city council’s vote in June to loosen the city’s ordinances in a way that largely decriminalized the act of camping, sitting, and lying down in most public spaces.

“These are women that are experiencing homelessness that are in the dark, hidden places in the woods, near our rivers and streams, that have come to accept being assaulted as just part of their lives and made some kind of horrible peace with that,” Adler explained. “But are now out of that place or in a place where they are seen more by the public. They feel like they’re more with the rest of that community. They feel like if something happened to them and they cried for help somebody would actually hear them and they say that they’re not getting assaulted anymore.”

Now that Adler has spoken to people with stories like this, he said: “I, for one, can’t send them back to [living in hiding].”

Texas Governor Greg Abbott has, in the past month, issued an ultimatum to the city of Austin, calling on the city to reinstate its ban on camping in public areas.

He’s also called for other steps in “demonstrating consequential improvement” in addressing homelessness in Austin.

If the city doesn’t meet the standards Abbott has set out by Nov. 1, he has threatened to bring in state agencies such as the Department of Public Safety’s troopers to enforce state law and the Office of the Attorney General to seek injunctive relief and civil penalties for violations of state rules.

In an interview with KXAN Monday, Abbott made it clear that the state plans to act if Austin’s old camping ban is not reinstated.

However, Adler doesn’t believe that Austin’s city council will scrap or reverse the ordinances they passed in June.

“We should be helping those people not hiding them, so I don’t anticipate that the council is going to decide that we should return to hiding people who are not creating risks, not creating hazards, but are just experiencing homelessness,” Adler said.

To be clear, this does not mean there won’t be major adjustments made to these ordinances. Adler expects the council to adopt some revisions to the ordinances that specify certain places where people can’t camp or rest.

Council talked about possible revisions at a work session Tuesday and Council members Ann Kitchen, Kathie Tovo, Alison Alter and Leslie Pool are sponsors of a resolution and an ordinance on Thursday’s agenda that would specify places where people will not be allowed to camp or obstruct public space.

The debate around camping, sitting and lying down in public

Since the council passed these new rules in June, the city has seen a heated public debate about the policies and about how the city should be handling homelessness in general.

The city has made addressing homelessness a top priority for the past couple of years and has tried different strategies to help people find shelter and support.

The ordinances were created in hopes of breaking the cycle of homelessness and cutting down on the number of citations or warrants people experiencing homelessness receive for simply being homeless. A city audit in 2017 found that the old panhandling, camping and no-sit/no-lie rules could make it harder for people to find a way out of homelessness because those citations and warrants make them less likely to them to get accepted to jobs or housing.

In early October, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley confirmed that he’d requested the council reinstate the old ordinances and ban camping on sidewalks downtown until city leaders arrived at a more permanent solution.

Since Austin’s council passed ordinances, Governor Abbott has taken to social media several times to express disapproval of the policies and of the perpetuation of homelessness in Austin. However, as the governor has used social media to amplify his concerns, the anecdotes he has highlighted are not always as they appear to be at first glance.

In one instance, the governor suggested a car crash was caused by Austin’s homeless policies. But Austin police said they had no reports of homeless individuals being involved in the crash.

In another instance, Abbott suggested that Austin’s homeless policies led a man to throw a scooter through the window of a car. But the man whose car was damaged told KXAN that “There’s a lot of people making assumptions. This guy was homeless, but that is not the problem. The problem going on here is drugs … I just don’t want people to blame it on the homeless. It’s a lack of resources, treatment and counseling available to these people.”

Responding to Governor Abbott

“I think it’s really good that the Governor is now focused on homelessness,” Adler told KXAN on Tuesday, responding to Abbott’s interview with KXAN on Monday. “Certainly Austin has a challenge, it’s not as great as the challenge in cities like Dallas but it’s significant. And the fact that the Governor now is focusing on homelessness in cities in the state I think is a good thing.”

In the interview Tuesday, Abbott told KXAN, “I spent three days in Dallas, Texas, the past few days.”

“I’ve covered almost every area of downtown Dallas,” the Governor continued. “There was not one person out camping. There was not one person laying on the street. No feces on the ground. They have more homeless in Dallas than they have in Austin, Texas, because they have an orderly process. They go about making sure that what’s going on in downtown Austin is not taking place in downtown Dallas.”

Adler reiterated that Dallas has more people experiencing homelessness than Austin does. In 2019 Dallas had a total of 4,538 homeless individuals (a 9% increase from the year before), whereas Austin had a total of 2,255 homeless individuals (a 5% increase from the year before).

Adler acknowledged that the changes to the ordinances have made homelessness more visible in Austin.

“It is true that in Austin we’re seeing it now a little bit more than what is being seen perhaps in Dallas but the answer to that isn’t to hide it,” he said. “The answer is to house these folks.”

Abbott also pointed out that the state has offered resources that Austin can use to address homelessness. His office provided KXAN with the data from different state agencies about this funding.

When it comes to funding that goes specifically to homelessness in the 2020 fiscal year, the state is will give $662,843 to the City of Austin, plus another $35,135 that is expected to be allocated this fall. Also during this fiscal year, the state will allocate another $3,538,771 in funds related to curbing homelessness to Integral Care, an organization that serves Travis County. In total, that amounts to $4, 236,749 allocated by the state of Texas toward addressing homelessness in the Austin area.

“They have more than enough money to solve the problems,” Abbott told KXAN. “They just need to step up and address it and show leadership.”

Adler disagrees.

“It’s untrue that Austin has more money than it needs to solve the challenge of homelessness,” Adler responded.

“If the governor has a plan for our city to be able to house people who are experiencing homelessness in our city, for what we have now, I welcome it and plead for that,” Adler said. “But we have a lot of people who have been working on this challenge for a long time, we’re comparing programs and practices with cities across the country all the time, if there was a way for us to house everybody in our community with the resources we have right now, we would be doing it.”

Abbott suggested that Austin will be paying more than $20,000 per person, a figure the comes from the $62.7 million in the city’s most recent budget allocated to address homelessness divided by the number of homeless individuals in the city.

Adler says that isn’t a fair way of representing how that money is actually being used.

“A lot of the money that we’re spending is to stop people from ending up on our streets, experiencing homelessness,” the Mayor said. “So part of the money we spend is on rental subsidies, on support, on jobs training, on rapid rehousing to get someone who has had the perfect calamity and is on their own to get them into a place where they can live for two or three months before they right themselves.”

Adler added that in any given year in the Austin area more than 7,000 people experience homelessness for at least some portion of time.

The Mayor said that Austinites should expect to see some new data and information coming out about homelessness in Austin this week.

This upcoming Friday, the Mayor said: “It’s my intent to talk to the community generally about what the Governors’ been saying, to talk about the data that comes out this week and the path that as a city we need to follow.”

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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