Gov. Abbott: If Austin allows homeless to camp in streets, lawmakers will override it

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Gov. Greg Abbott threatened to “override” a new Austin ordinance on homelessness if it leads to people camping on city streets and sidewalks.

IN-DEPTH: What this ordinance means for Austin and what both sides are saying

Abbott made the threat in a Sunday night tweet, highlighting another person’s comment and KXAN’s prior coverage on “tent city” concerns.

“If Austin — or any other Texas city — permits camping on city streets it will be yet another local ordinance the State of Texas will override,” Abbott wrote.

Gov. Abbott’s office confirms his tweet was referring to future legislative action to override the city’s ordinance when lawmakers return after the November 2020 election. The Texas legislature meets every two years for 140 days. Lawmakers just ended their session at the end of May.

Last week the city of Austin began a new police policy, stopping officers from citing or arresting homeless people unless they are a direct threat to the public.

Advocates say minor offenses for the homeless lead to missed court dates and arrest warrants but people who live in central and south Austin neighborhoods are organizing after council added plans for another homeless shelter along Ben White Boulevard.

Rick Russell had never been to an Austin City Council meeting before last Thursdays. The homeless ordinances inspired him to go.

“They just made it easier by giving the homeless more flexibility and taking powers away from our law enforcement agency. It’s not right,” Russell said.

He opposes the new ordinance that will allow people to camp, sleep and panhandle in public if the city believes they aren’t a threat to public safety or health.

“The litter, the alcoholism, the drugs, the burglaries that go on to support those things. Even the unsightliness of having someone sound asleep on the sidewalk or tents,” said Russell, describing what he believes a “breach of peace” would be.

Russell wants the State of Texas to sue the city for “breaching the peace.”

“Our office is aware of this city ordinance. We will continue to perform our duty of ensuring that all city ordinances follow state law,” said Marc Rylander, Director of Communications for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, when KXAN asked for a comment responding to Russell’s request.

“We don’t have to be the guinea pigs. All you have to do is look at Seattle, Portland, Skid Row in Los Angeles. They’ve done what we’re doing and you see where it gets them,” Russell said.

Austin Mayor Adler says the year and a half before the next legislative session is enough time to prove the city’s new policy will work.

“The question is, do you want to put that person in jail? Is that really the right response? I don’t think that it is. Just getting them to move isn’t the right response either because they move somewhere,” Adler said.

Austin City Council Member Gregorio Casar was less diplomatic and called Abbott “part of the problem.”

“You are the Governor of Texas. Our state ranks near bottom on mental health access/ spending, investments in public safety nets, and healthcare,” he wrote. “You had 6 months to address the very real suffering of millions of Texans just trying to make ends meet. You did not.”

Austin Police Chief Brian Manley declined to endorse or criticize the Council’s decision at the meeting. He did say the changes will make it tougher for his officers to take action.

“Now, we’ll have to establish that the underlying conduct posed a danger or hazard to someone before we can take any action,” Manley said.

In an internal email to the Austin Police Department, Manley told his staff the policy change will begin in July.

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