Homeless camping in Austin could go before voters in November


AUSTIN (KXAN) — A coalition of organizations wants to bring back Austin’s homeless camping ban and will seek a ballot initiative.

A group represented by the nonprofit Save Austin Now, the Austin Police Association and SafeHorns will seek to get 20,000 signatures to put the issue before voters in November.

“We do feel confident that if we get it on the ballot it will pass,” said Matt Mackowiak, co-founder of Save Austin Now.

The coalition wants to restore the camping ban citywide, restore the sit and lie ordinance to downtown and extend it to the UT campus and surrounding areas. Such a ballot ordinance would also ban panhandling from the hours of 7 p.m. – 7 a.m.

“This is not a partisan issue,” said Mackowiak. “Everyone wants a safe neighborhood.”

The group cited public safety and a recent increase in violent crime.

APD Assistant Chief Joe Chacon told council last week only a fraction of violence involves those experiencing homelessness.

The debate over homeless camping has intensified since the city repealed the ban last Summer. City leaders claim those experiencing homelessness no longer are forced into hiding and are easier to seek out for services.

“In conversations with service providers, they have been able to access their clients more regularly and more consistently because they know where they’re going to be,” said Public Safety Commissioner Chris Harris.

“The good news is, the state now has an encampment with Camp R.A.T.T. which is nowhere near capacity, which is improving every day, which is self-governing,” said Mackowiak.

Nearly 150 people are staying at Camp R.A.T.T. right now, which the state could lease to Austin business leaders or the community itself.

Council member Greg Casar issued a statement on Save Austin Now‘s petition effort:

“If the Travis County GOP Chair wants to spend a lot of money, time, and energy on a hurtful campaign that will do nothing to decrease our homeless population, that’s certainly his choice. But if Gov. Greg Abbott and the GOP Chair truly cared about public safety and public health in Austin, they would be working with the Austin City Council to provide housing and services to people experiencing homelessness. Unfortunately, it seems clear that they are committed to making matters worse.”

Safety concerns near homeless camps

Sunday, Austin Police responded to a homeless camp in southwest Austin near Mopac and U.S. 290. APD arrested 41-year-old Damon Boyd. According to court documents, he got into an argument with the victim.

Damon Richard Boyd, 41, has been identified as a suspect in connection to a homicide at a homeless camp on Feb. 23, 2020 (KXAN/APD)

“The homeless camp here. I’ve been here 30 years, and there was no homeless camp here to this extent,” said Tim Altanero. “What I see now is a camp that stretches for blocks, and it is filthy.”

Altanero told KXAN there’s a camp behind Walmart, another camp further down south where APD was seen investigating Sunday and a third camp closer to Southwest Parkway.

To hear about a murder at one of those, Altanero said, “I’m very very saddened. We are sad, and and we’re outraged by it.”

Altanero is collecting signatures to recall City Council Member Paige Ellis who represents that area. “This is her territory, and we have been writing and calling and emailing her about the disaster that’s unleashed on us since July [when the ordinance changed],” he explained. “I don’t know what to say other than I am outraged that our district rep has abandoned us.”

His effort is part of a larger campaign that launched last year to recall Mayor Steve Adler, and five council members, including Ellis.

Altanero said, “We need a comprehensive legislation that regulates camping.”

The wooded areas where the homeless camps are located border Sunset Valley’s city limits. There, homeless camping in public is prohibited.

“When it comes to camping, soliciting in public, our ordinances are slightly different,” explained Sunset Valley’s Police Chief Lenn Carter. “The City of Sunset Valley doesn’t allow camping in public spaces, on publicly owned land. We don’t allow solicitation without a permit.”

Homeless camp near Mopac and U.S. 290 in southwest Austin. (KXAN Photo/Yoojin Cho)

He said the department still receives calls about the nearby camps.

“They’ll call us if they see camps in the trail areas, but that’s outside our jurisdiction” Carter said. “When we get those complaints, we contact Austin PD and inform them that we’ve had a complaint about a campsite.”

Still because “what happens outside our city limits has an impact on our city as well,” Carter told KXAN they started a cleanup program last spring. “Our officers, we schedule quarterly, sometimes more often, cleanups of the areas that lead into and out of our city. We often end up cleaning old campsites, debris from campsites.”

Altanero said Austin should do a better job at enforcing what’s possible to enforce under the current camping ordinance. “Just enforce the laws on the books,” he said. “It is illegal to trash watersheds like this, but I haven’t’ seen anything done in the past six to eight weeks about it.”

He added, “We can’t walk on these trails anymore. We could touch a hypodermic that’s used.”

Mackowiak said, “I think the majority Austin residents believe that the system we had in June kept out city safe enough.”

According to Austin’s Watershed Protection Department, it’ll look into this area in southwest Austin. What they find out will determine what happens next.

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