Austin camping ban debate highlights fundamental rift over how to address homelessness

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — On Tuesday, leadership training nonprofit ATXelerator hosted a virtual discussion about homelessness and policies for camping in public spaces.

The discussion was framed in anticipation of a measure placed by a petition effort on Austin’s May ballot, which if passed, would reinstate the ban on public camping that city council repealed in 2019.

The panelists Tuesday included Matt Mackowiak (chair of the Travis County Republican Party and cofounder of the Save Austin Now PAC, which is leading the effort to reinstate the camping ban), Austin Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison (who voted in favor of repealing the camping ban in 2019 and is opposed to reinstating it) and Matt Mollica, executive director for the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (who is also opposed to reinstating the camping ban and whose organization coordinates broad strategies for addressing homelessness in Austin). Austin Police Association President Ken Cassaday was supposed to appear on the panel as well (he is the director for Save Austin Now) but was unable to attend due to other police matters.

Turning to different information for answers

The conversation Tuesday highlighted that Mackowiak believes in different sources of information about homelessness in Austin than Mollica and Harper-Madison do. Throughout the panel, Mackowiak questioned data coming from ECHO, the entity who quite literally is tasked with overseeing Austin’s homelessness response and overseeing local data about homelessness to submit to the federal government. Mackowiak turned to anecdotal sources, such as interviewees, accounts from family members, and personal accounts from police officers to characterize homelessness in Austin. Mollica and Harper-Madison characterized homelessness in Austin by turning to the Point in Time Count numbers (the federally required and annually reported data about homelessness in a community.)

A screenshot from the live discussion about homelessness hosted on March 11 through ATXelerator. Top Left, Ward Tisdale, Executive Director for ATXelerator. Top Right, Austin Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper- Madison. Bottom Left, Mack Mackowiak, co-Founder Save Austin Now. Bottom Right, Matt Mollica, Executive Director Ending Community Homelessness Coalition. (Screenshot from ATXelerator Facebook Live)

ECHO is charged with carrying out the city’s Point in Time Count each year, which submits data to the federal government to help qualify Austin for grants related to homelessness. The most recently available Point in Time Count numbers for Austin were gathered in January 2020. That count showed an 11% increase in overall homelessness from 2019 to 2020 in Austin-Travis County and a 45% increase in unsheltered homelessness (i.e. people literally sleeping outdoors).

ECHO has said it does not believe these increases are the product of some kind of surge of people falling into homelessness but rather a more accurate count enabled by more volunteers and better technology. The Point in Time Count numbers, when compared to Travis County’s population, have stayed at around 0.2% per capita over the past decade, ECHO explained at the time the 2020 count numbers were released.

A graph depicting the total numbers of people experiencing homelessness in Austin-Travis County during Point in Time counts from 2011 through 2020. (Graph Courtesy: ECHO)

Mackowiak questioned why ECHO didn’t do a Point in Time Count this year and suggested it was because the organization was afraid the numbers would rise.

ECHO has already shared due to safety concerns with COVID-19, it would not have a traditional Point in Time Count with hundreds of volunteers. Instead, ECHO was granted an exception by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and is finding another way to approximate the total number of people sleeping on the street.

“A PIT Count’s success hinges on how many volunteers — many of whom are older Austinites and college students — show up to survey our unhoused neighbors, and with Texas’ lack of contact tracers, ECHO staff and governing stakeholders concluded it would be irresponsible at best and negligent at worst to encourage people to interact with this high-risk population in the middle of the post-holiday COVID-19 surge,” an ECHO spokesperson told KXAN.

“Our Research and Evaluation team will use the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) to estimate homelessness on a single day, and we will release this data in the coming weeks, much like a traditional PIT Count,” the ECHO spokesperson continued. “HMIS is one of several data tools ECHO and our community providers use daily to track the ever-changing needs of our unhoused population.”

Multiple times, Mackowiak implied ECHO didn’t do an in-person Point in Time Count for 2021, because they feared it would reveal a larger number of people experiencing homelessness.

“I very much wish this study were occurring this year,” Mackowiak said. “I guess I will take them at their word it’s not occurring, because of COVID, although I imagine with face shields and with gloves and other things it would have been possible to do it.”

Mackowiak also suggested because the unsheltered homeless population in Austin increased by 45% from 2019 to 2020 during the Point in Time Count, that the homeless population in Austin would double for each of the following years.

An ECHO spokesperson told KXAN of Mackowiak’s assessment, “that is not in any way a responsible use of the data and the numbers absolutely do not support that conclusion.”

ECHO’s 2020 Point in Time county numbers suggest there were 1,574 people experiencing unsheltered homelessness and 932 people experiencing sheltered homelessness in Austin.

Mackowiak continued to repeat he believes there are currently 5,000 people experiencing homelessness in Austin.

“I don’t know what data you’re pointing to, to make any of these arguments if you’re not using the ECHO data from the Point in Time, you’re literally just spouting off things that have no basis in any data or any grounding in any research at all,” Mollica said. “What are you referencing, what report, what’s happening, where are the 5,000 people coming from, I don’t understand, where are you getting these numbers?”

Mackowiak later clarified to KXAN he was told anecdotally by several Austin police officers there are 5,000 people experiencing homelessness in Austin right now.

Mollica proceeded to tell Mackowiak “the anecdotes are just not helpful.”

“We’re trying to find solutions here, Matt, like we are really trying to find solutions,” Mollica continued. “These are Austinites, Matt, these are not monsters like they are being made out to be, Matt, they are people, they are human beings, and they’re not just statistics, they are not just anecdotes, they are not to be glossed over like that. You need to be careful with how you speak about this population — they are human beings.”

Mackowiak then interjected, telling the moderator “I am not going to be demagogued like that” and suggesting a majority of people in Austin agree with Save Austin Now.

“You don’t know me, Matt,” Mackowiak fired back at Mollica. “I’m Christian and Catholic, I support homelessness organizations, and I have toured Community First! Village.”

Mackowiak said he and his colleagues at Save Austin Now believe Austin is worse off now than it was before the camping ban was repealed.

ECHO graph where you first experienced homelessness
A graphic from ECHO’s 2020 Point in Time Count depicting where respondents first experienced homelessness. (Graphic Courtesy ECHO)

“Austin is probably the single most attractive place for a homeless person to go, partially because of weather but also partially because of the camping ordinance,” Mackowiak said. He claimed the policy change in 2019 has been drawing in more people experiencing homelessness from other areas, citing anecdotal accounts in the Austin American-Statesman of people who have moved to Austin from other parts of Texas.

Mollica was quick to point out ECHO’s data shows no evidence people experiencing homelessness are increasingly moving to Austin because of the camping rule.

“What we’re seeing really is displacement of legacy Austinites and their family in our community, leading to higher rates of homelessness in Austin and Travis County,” he added.

In the 2020 Point in Time Count, ECHO saw a “slightly increasing” number of people who became homeless for the first time in Austin. 63.4% of those responding to the 2020 Count said Austin-Travis County was the first place they became homeless and 19.4% said the first place they became homeless was somewhere else in Texas.

Divergence in what it means to successfully address homelessness

Throughout the panel, it also became clear Mackowiak also has a fundamentally different view of what it means for a policy to work in addressing homelessness than Mollica and Harper-Madison do.

Speaking about the ballot measure his PAC is supporting, Mackowiak said “there’s nowhere in the charter, in the provision, nowhere in our language do we make it illegal to be homeless — the status of not having a home.”

“What we [want to] make illegal is something that was illegal in our city for 23 years when there was zero crisis,” he continued referring to the camping ban. KXAN followed up with Mackowiak to see what he meant by “zero crisis” — he pointed to an account from Austin Police Association in which the association indicated there was a high voluntary compliance rate with the old camping ban policy.

A man lays on the sidewalk on Congress Avenue in Austin just outside the Texas Capitol, Jan. 18, 2020. (KXAN Photo/Alyssa Goard)

Mackowiak suggested the old camping ban policy worked, because people moved out of public spaces when asked to by police. He claimed repealing the camping ordinance has created a “dirty and unsafe city, harm to our parks and damage to our image and tourism.”

In contrast, Mollica believes that for any policy to work in addressing homelessness, it must get people successfully housed, fit their needs and offer dignity.

Mollica, who has worked in homeless services for the past 16 years said of camping bans, “it’s not a solution to end homelessness, it doesn’t work for communities, and it will continue to not work here in Austin if we go back to that.”

Harper-Madison made it clear she believes policies that work to address homelessness need to be rooted in housing.

“Ultimately, cities aren’t completely innocent, in a big way homelessness is directly linked to our affordability crisis,” Harper-Madison said. “We have been staring down an affordability crisis in housing and supply shortage for far too long, and I will hold the city at fault for that.”

She also added, “there have been a lot of things that happened as a result of us making the move that we made, but I don’t believe there is any negative to our approach to helping people experiencing homelessness.”

A man named Kenneth, who is experiencing homelessness in Austin, stops to rest with his cart outside of the Texas Capitol grounds. Kenneth said he is nervous about potential extremist violence in the coming days at the state capitol. January 18, 2020. (KXAN Photo/Alyssa Goard)

Mackowiack disagreed with Harper-Madison on that point and later went on to remind her his Save Austin Now colleague Cleo Patricek had spearheaded the effort back in 2019 to oppose a homeless shelter in South Austin. After community opposition and heated debate, the city opted not to create that particular homeless shelter.

“Local grassroots advocates determined it would be deeply unsafe for children at those schools,” Mackowiak said, implying it is unsafe for children to be around people experiencing homelessness.

“Mr. Mackowiak, where do we put them then,” Harper-Madison responded. “If not in my backyard, if not in your backyard, not in her back yard, where do people go who are experiencing homelessness — and we have not tackled our housing crisis in the City of Austin — where do you suggest people go? I’m very curious to know that.”

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