Gov. Abbott says he’s not bluffing: the state will act if Austin camping ban’s not reinstated

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — If the City of Austin’s camping ban is still in place on Nov. 1, Gov. Greg Abbott says he will move in state health, transportation and law enforcement agencies to the city. Abbott has sent two letters to Austin Mayor Steve Adler outlining his criticism of the city’s homeless controversy. On Monday, KXAN asked him questions about the next steps.

6 takeaways from reporter Phil Prazan’s interview with Gov. Abbott

1. Abbott says he will direct state agencies into Austin on Nov. 1, says he is not bluffing and is calling on the City to reinstate the camping ban at this week’s city council meeting.

PRAZAN: Let’s start with just on your letter. November 1st comes. How is this going to look, because the critics at city hall question whether there’s any legal authority to actually do this?

 ABBOTT: The state of Texas has a multitude of laws, whether it be health laws — the transportation department can go about cleaning up all this mess. As governor of Texas, I’m not going to stand idly by while Austin allows feces on the streets of downtown. It endangers health. It endangers safety. The laws of the state of Texas give me as governor the power to make sure I keep our citizens and residents safe. I will not allow the city of Austin to endanger the people of this state to be exposed to things like Typhus and Hepatitis A.

 PRAZAN: Would you have to declare an emergency or quarantine or anything like that?

ABBOTT: Not at all. There are plenty of state statutes that fully empower me to make sure as Governor I clean up the feces and I make Austin safe without having to declare an emergency.

KXAN also spoke with City Councilmember Greg Casar,District 4, who was a prominent supporter of repealing the camping ban. In short, he tells me Abbott’s words are not helping the city is trying to solve this complex problem. He says Abbott is taking advantage for political gain because there are other serious state issues.

“There was a mass shooting in El Paso and the Governor decided he wanted to talk and talk and talk and not take immediate action to address real violence and death in our community. And then he sees people experiencing homelessness in Austin and he wants to send the state troopers in,” said Casar.

2. When asked why Gov. Abbott’s letter did not mention funding for housing, he says in the City of Austin’s newest budget, it spends tens of millions of dollars on a homeless shelter and housing programs.

PRAZAN: Some of the critics have looked at that letter and said, ‘Well, the real problem is, we need to get these people into housing,’ and your letter didn’t hint on any housing or money for housing. What about that?

ABBOTT: Austin has more money than they need to solve this problem. For one, the state is already providing them nearly $4 million. But, second, the city of Austin is tapping into their taxpayers for more than $20,000 per homeless person. If they can’t get this problem fixed by spending $20,000 or more per homeless person, the problem is not the homeless, the problem is a lack of leadership in Austin, Texas.

In response, Casar told KXAN, “We’ve helped in the last month according to our main homelessness provider, we’ve helped more people experiencing homelessness this month than any month in recent memory. We open a new shelter. And we’re about to open another one. We are doing more than we ever have to try and get people housed to deal with the problem while stopping just arresting and ticketing people for being poor. We continue to have our laws related to public safety and public health in place. So I just don’t understand why the Governor all of a sudden takes it upon himself to go – I’,m not here to help, I am here to threaten, and basically get a photo opp with the state troopers. It’s not good for anybody but Greg Abbott,” said Casar.

3. Gov. Abbott says it’s hypocritical that Austin’s city council allowed camping in many public places but not Austin city hall.

PRAZAN: When I broke the news to the city, they go — that’s not helping? Do you feel … They feel like you could help work together and solve this problem instead of taking a more adversarial approach. What do you say to folks like that?

ABBOTT: Two things. They have more than enough money to solve the problems. They just need to step up and address it and show leadership. The second thing they should do is stop the hypocrisy. Why do they set one rule for the homeless to roam around any place they want to but they say ‘Oh no, not at city hall.’ If they really care about the homeless, the first thing the city of Austin should do is say ‘City hall is the first place you should come to. Lay around City Hall. Come inside, as opposed to being exposed to the heat or the cold outside. Come inside City Hall. Do you need access to running water? Use our water. Use our plumbing. Sleep in our parking garage.’ Austin needs to stop the hypocrisy. 

In response, Casar said, “I wish the Governor since he’s the Governor would read laws and understand the rules. The fact of the matter is all ceremonial buildings – be at the Governor’s mansion that taxpayers pay for, or city hall, or courthouses, and other places like libraries and parks – that there is not camping in those places. But people are allowed to exist on the sidewalks, just like they’re allowed to exist right outside the sidewalks here at city hall.”

4. Gov. Abbott doesn’t buy the argument for repealing the camping ban

PRAZAN: Their argument is, if you ticket people, that leads to warrants. If they can’t pay, then warrants get in the way of them getting a job or getting a home. That’s their argument for why they did it. What are your thoughts on that, because the way they frame it seems to be reasonable?

ABBOTT: It’s insane the way they phrase. I spent three days in Dallas, Texas, the past few days. I’ve covered almost every area of downtown Dallas. 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.

5. If the state moves in, TxDOT could clean up camps and trash underneath state highways (I-35 and State Highways 290, 2222, 71 and 183), health workers could investigate and respond to contagious diseases, and the troopers for the Department of Public Safety could ticket people, move out camps, and respond to crimes in state-authorized areas.

PRAZAN: In your second letter, paraphrasing here, but if city council doesn’t reverse the camping ban, state agencies would do something similar. So what does that mean? Does that mean ticketing, arresting, moving people away from many public areas that they’re camping in now?

ABBOTT: There are a lot of strategies that we can use and deploy. I’m not going to front-run that in advance of the city hall taking the action they need. What I’m saying is city hall, this week, better vote to restore the camping ban to stop allowing the homeless to live a life different from other people. They are empowering the homeless to say ‘You have no rules that apply to your life. Use the bathroom wherever you want.’ That’s not the way society works. What the city of Austin is doing is they are hurting the homeless. They are exposing the homeless to greater danger — the risk of greater disease by the rules they are allowing the homeless to live by.

PRAZAN: Any other specifics you could give to end on what the Department of State Health Services or DPS could do and what we would see them doing?

ABBOTT: We’re going to do everything we can. We will use every state agency to clean up downtown Austin but also under all of these bridges and overpasses and underpasses to make sure the people of Austin are going to be safe and not exposed to the disease.

6. Gov. Abbott says the longterm solution can be found in other cities in Texas.

PRAZAN: What’s the longterm solution in your view?

ABBOTT: The longterm solution is sanity. Not insanity. Again, I go to other downtowns across the State, Dallas most recently. There were no campouts. There were no people sleeping on the streets. There were no intoxicated people just lying across the sidewalk. Other cities are capable of doing this. Austin must do it also.

KXAN will continue to look into claims made in both interviews with Abbott and Casar.

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