AUSTIN (KXAN) — Billy Hilliard has lived in a tent underneath U.S. 183 in north Austin for the past year.

Behind Hilliard’s constant smile, he worries about the politics surrounding homelessness in Austin and the threat of a reinstated public camping ban.

He knows that a local group has claimed to have the needed signatures to put the ban, which was ended by the Austin City Council in 2019, on the ballot for voters in May.

“I was freaking out,” Hilliard told KXAN.

Save Austin Now, the group behind the petition to reinstate a public camping ban in the city, is calling for an independent audit of the city’s spending on homelessness.

Save Austin Now wants a “thorough” report of spending on homelessness programs, including housing facilities purchased since July 1.

Last year, the city purchased two hotels for a combined $16.7 million as part of its motel conversion strategy. The hotels have been used as protective lodges for high-risk individuals experiencing homelessness during the pandemic.

The Austin City Council voted last week to purchase a third hotel for $6.7 million last week and postponed a vote to purchase a fourth hotel.

“Taxpayers deserve to know how $160 million were spent over fiscal years 2018-2020 and what we have to show for it. Because it appears the money has been widely spent on waste, with precious little new homeless housing being made available despite massive investment,” Matt Mackowiak, co-founder of Save Austin Now, said in a statement.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler has said reinstating the public camping ban would be “inhumane” but acknowledged that the city’s approach to homelessness isn’t working the way it’s supposed to in the years since the Austin City Council ended the ban in 2019.

Save Austin Now said it has collected more than the needed petition signatures to place reinstatement of the camping ban before city voters in May.

Gov. Greg Abbott said his forthcoming plan to address homelessness will include a statewide ban on camping in public.

New recommendations on homelessness

The Economic Prosperity Commission, a civilian-led group that advises the Austin City Council, has approved a list of recommendations on how to address homelessness.

The recommendations include:

  • Funding for a Universal Basic Income Program (UBI) to help combat displacement
  • Continue investing in permanent supportive housing, including refurbished hotels
  • Establish city-sanctioned campsites on city-owned property, with restrooms, bathing facilities, 24/7 security, food and water distribution, health care access
  • Consider ways to enforce cleanliness in public spaces without reinstating fines
  • Consider incentives to encourage those experiencing homelessness to move campsites to city-sanctioned property
  • Direct city manager and city to rework land use and development code to ensure all types of housing can be built to stabilize the rising cost of housing

Nathan Ryan, a business owner and appointed member of the civilian-led commission, is concerned about the rhetoric surrounding Austin’s approach to homelessness.

It’s possible, he said, to take issue with the level of camping in public spaces of the city while also being concerned for the health and well-being of those experiencing homelessness.

“I do assume that most people really care here in Austin about unhoused Austinites and want to make sure that they’re safe and given access to the resources that they need to improve their station in life,” Ryan said.

KXAN politics reporter John Engel will have a full report tonight at 6 p.m.