AUSTIN (KXAN) — When Austin began its new homeless policy, Governor Abbott vowed to try and “override” it when the legislature returns in 2021. He did not elaborate last week. He did on Wednesday, pointing south on I-35 to San Antonio.
“Bottom line is that almost any strategy is superior to allowing people to camp out on places like Congress Avenue,” Abbott told reporters at an unrelated press conference.
In June, the Austin City Council decriminalized many aspects of homelessness: sitting, camping, sleeping, and panhandling in many public areas. The policy began in July.
Abbott’s threat to override came in a tweet when the policy began. Instead, he thinks Austin should draw inspiration from San Antonio’s long-running partnership with Haven for Hope.
The San Antonio shelter is in a central location, on a 22-acre gated campus, next to the courthouse. Its leaders pride themselves on being a one-stop shop for wraparound services: mental health, job training, physical health, even a kennel for the pets of homeless people.
“It does not ignore the homeless. It helps the homeless be placed on a pathway toward recovery and improvement in their lives,” said Abbott, “It helps people get off the streets. It gives them a place to stay. It provides them training and assistance toward getting a job, as well as provides them assistance in getting the medication that many of them need in order to balance their lives.”
There are some aspects of the San Antonio strategy that may not work in Austin, or not be readily available. For one, the majority of the $100 million-plus project was paid for with private donations. The main driver of the shelter was the former CEO of Valero, Bill Greehey, providing financial and vocal support. Austin at this time doesn’t have a private sector partner at that level.
Some progressive advocates also have concerns with the proximity to the courthouse and jail cells, just across the street. Part of Austin’s policy change was to separate homelessness from criminal penalties, which many see as locking homeless people in a cycle of tickets, warrants, and poverty.
Then, people going to Haven for Hope must pledge to be sober. Addicts or people who do not want to be sober might stay away from help.
Abbott did say it was important “establishing shelters in various locations.” That’s something Austin is doing, in creating a new homeless shelter along Ben White in South Austin.
Abbott says his office is monitoring the new Austin policy for health and safety concerns, but for calling lawmakers back for a special session to override Austin, he’s is hesitant.
“People need to understand that Special Session is not a magic wand that solves all problems,” said Abbott.
This week, Mayor Adler is traveling to LA to find out what that city wished it did before homelessness overwhelmed it. KXAN spoke to him before he left and on the criticism, he told me he’s happy more people are getting involved.
“I’m not sure we’ve ever had the community as focused and as aligned and as interested in actually doing things as we have right now,” said Adler.