Gov. Abbott says homeless ordinance change is good, but the state will still intervene

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — In 10 days, Austin’s updated homeless camping ordinance will go into effect. Thursday night, the Austin City Council voted 7-4 to reinstate homeless camping bans in some areas.

The changes include:

  • Ban public camping on sidewalks
  • Ban sitting, lying or camping within 15 feet of a door of an open business
  • Ban sitting, lying or camping within 15 feet of a home
  • Ban sitting, lying or camping around the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless downtown
  • Ban camping on land with high wildfire risks

In response, the Governor’s Office released a statement:

By reforming its homelessness policy, the city of Austin has taken a meaningful step to address the safety and health of Texans – including the homeless.

The statement went on and said “the Texas Department of Transportation will advance strategies to clear homeless encampments under bridges.”

The Governor’s Office said it’ll work with the Austin Police Department, the University of Texas and all state-related facilities. It’ll also work with shelters in and around Austin.

TxDOT cleaning areas under bridges isn’t new to Austin. Until earlier this year, TxDOT was routinely cleaning out camps.

In February, a spokesperson told us the agency would “provide at least 72 hours notice before a cleanup, offer bags for protecting personal property and partner with local organizations that provide services to those experiencing homelessness.”

At that point, however, TxDOT was already in the process of transitioning cleanups to the city. The agency said it could no longer cover the annual $400,000 price tag because of expenses related to fall flooding.

The Governor’s Office statement was released during Austin Mayor Steve Adler’s media availability with the local media. He said, “I want to know where those people are supposed to go to. And my fear is that if the Governor just moves them in order to hide them, that they’ll be moving to places that are less safe for them and for the public generally.”

Current encampment cleanups are being managed by the city of Austin’s Public Works Department.

When asked about the state stepping in, the department told KXAN,

“The cleaning process that is now being managed by the City is not intended to remove any individuals who may be camping at these underpass locations—rather, they are to help ensure the public right-of-way is as clean and safe as possible for all residents. The City is committed to continuing this work, and we welcome any inter-agency coordination to ensure these areas are clean and free of debris.”

-Kyle Carvell, Public Works Department

Business owners react to the ordinance update

“We’ve been dealing with the homeless situation down here for years,” but Craig Staley said, it became a crisis in July when homeless camping was decriminalized.

“The one thing that we hear over and over again is people don’t want to come to this store even if they are a couple blocks away, and mainly it’s because of the number of times they’ll be panhandled between their office and our store,” Staley said.

He owns Royal Blue Grocery on Congress Avenue. He said setting a 15-foot radius around businesses helps, but not by much.

“What it’ll allow people to do is still sit right here and still sit next to our patio, which of course isn’t ideal when you have customers who want to sit there and enjoy a meal, have a conversation,” Staley said. “They should’ve done more. For sure.”

And he’s not the only one feeling that way. City Council Member Ann Kitchen told KXAN, “I’m disappointed we didn’t get greater clarity.”

She said she wanted the ordinance update to include medians and underpasses and flood-prone areas.

“While I believe that clarity is needed, the public is asking for it, the council did not agree, so it’s time for us to move on,” she said.

She said the focus is now on connecting people to housing and reducing homelessness.

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