AUSTIN (KXAN) — Wednesday, Gov. Greg Abbott announced if Austin doesn’t address its homelessness problem by November 1, he will direct state agencies to step in. Austin Mayor Steve Adler said he welcomed the state’s assistance.
In June, Austin city council lifted the ban on sitting and camping in public places. A political backlash ensued with people tweeting and complaining about human feces, needles, fires, and dangerous situations caused by homeless people. Adler and council say the homeless have nowhere else to go and arresting them will only jack up the price tag for the city and county.
City officials say the Austin area has more than 2,200 homeless people. Much more are now visible because they can now sit, sleep, and camp in public view.
In the letter, Abbott says, in part: “Further inaction by you [Adler] and the Austin City Council will leave me no choice other than to use the tools available to the State of Texas to ensure that people are protected from health and safety concerns caused by the Austin homeless policies.”
Austin Mayor Steve Adler responded Wednesday afternoon with a lengthy press conference.
“There are some people that read this letter as a threat. I want you to know I understand the seriousness of this letter but I choose to read this letter as an offer of assistance. And this is not a city challenge it is a statewide challenge,” said Adler. “I look at this letter from the governor and he points out the Health Services Commission might very well be able to bring us assistance in this city and all Texas cities. I just want you to know how much I welcome that help and support.”
Mayor Adler countered Governor Abbott’s call-to-action by stating the city has done a good job of enforcing the laws, but he’d still welcome any help he can get.
He also invited a representative from the Governor’s office to attend weekly meetings with his staff to address homeless issues.
In the letter, Abbott explains several ways different state agencies might be used to address the problem and protect Austinites.
- The Health and Human Services Commission could adopt rules in the areas of communicable disease, sanitation and health protection
- The Department of State Health Services could use its authority to investigate and monitor people, property, animals and areas that might pose a threat to the prevention and control of disease
- The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality could review the city’s water quality standards, because, according to the Governor’s Office, the water quality could suffer in there’s increased defecation and other waste related to homelessness
- The Department of Public Safety could add troopers and security to areas that pose greater threats
- The Department of Transportation can use its authority to remove property that blocks roadways or puts public safety at risk
- The Office of the Attorney General to demand penalties given due to health nuisances
“I will give you until November 1, 2019 to demonstrate consequential improvement in the Austin homelessness crisis and the danger it poses to the health and safety of the public,” Abbott wrote. “If meaningful reforms are not implemented by then, I will direct every applicable state agency to act to fulfill my responsibility to protect the health and safety of Texans in your jurisdiction.”
Mayor Adler didn’t seem fazed by a looming deadline.
“The governor wants to see action by November 1st? My hope is that the governor starts seeing action by next week,” Mayor Adler stated.
Call for help
Businesses in Austin want to see the state take action.
In a small business park just south of Highway 290, there are steel, locked gates covering the doors. Private property signs warn off intruders. It’s a typical sight in this neighborhood.
“Despite all the posting, it’s not making a change,” said Leslie Werling, a psychic medium and owner of Lightwork by Leslie. “We have been crying out and feel as though our cries have fallen on deaf ears.”
Werling was happy to hear about the Governor’s letter to the mayor. She said it was important to give the city council time to find solutions, but now a higher authority needs to step in.
“We needed to see if there were going to be consequences by pulling back on the camping laws and obviously there are,” Werling said. “I don’t know what changes are to come, but I hope they are positive, not only for the community as a whole but to include the homeless population as well.”