Voters in Austin, Texas are headed to the polls to cast their vote in a May 1 election that will decide whether the city reinstates a public camping ban.
Austin’s homeless population has grown significantly over the last decade as the city has grown, housing prices have risen, and local officials have relied on outdated and failed federal programs and policies to try to curb the crisis. The city of Austin, led by a zealously left-wing city council and mayor, Steve Adler, has followed in the footsteps of west-coast cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles, all of which have exacerbated their homelessness problems through bad public policy that encourages homelessness and its attendant problems of drug abuse, public disorder, and crime.
The increasing number of people sleeping on the streets in Austin became even more apparent two years ago when the Democrat-dominated city council decided to remove a decades-old ordinance banning public camping, as well as decriminalizing panhandling. Shortly after the city lifted the ban, homelessness in Austin not only reached a 10-year high but citizens and downtown businesses, many ravaged by government-mandated lockdowns, began to complain that the groups of tents set up on streets, sidewalks, in parks, and other public areas were magnets for trash, crime, drug abuse, mental health crises, and aggression towards Austinites.
The city council’s decision was rushed, made without any official input from the citizens living in the communities the ban had protected. This lack of participation from Austinites, combined with a worsening homelessness problem that even Adler admitted wasn’t fixed by lifting the ban, prompted outrage that sparked a petition to overturn the new ordinance.
A bipartisan group called Save Austin Now led an indirect initiative that garnered at least 24,000 signatures and qualified for a ballot referendum as Proposition B in upcoming city-wide elections. Among supporters of Prop B, the hope is that elected officials will redirect their attention to handling the crisis they helped create.
“What [a lack of camping bans] don’t do is they don’t hold policymakers accountable for transforming policy that’s not working,” said Michele Steeb, a senior fellow with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, who specializes in homelessness policy. “So when you allow camping, as a local jurisdiction, there’s no reason for you to change policy that’s kind of forced this situation in the first place.”
In the 2020 fiscal year, the Austin City Council devoted $73.4 million, the largest amount in its history, to address the growing number of people sleeping on the streets, including by providing them housing. But as of December 2020, at least $31 million of those funds had been left unspent. Even after $43.2 million was spent on Austin’s approximately 2,500 homeless people last year, the city continues to face a worsening homelessness problem.
Violent crimes involving the homeless have increased, with at least a 10 percent rise in 2019 after the ban was lifted, making it the largest increase in the past five years. In some cases, the victims of these violent crimes have been homeless people, whose ranks have steadily increased since 2014.
“Crime has skyrocketed 43%. We’re on track for more murders this year than in the last 3 years combined. Lawlessness is not helping the homeless and it’s not helping Austin,” Save Austin Now states on its website.
The city council, which recently pulled funding from Austin’s police departments, wasn’t going to allow a city-wide referendum on its camping ban go down without a fight. It changed the wording of Prop B in a way that violated the city’s charter and showed bias against reinstating the ban, according to a recent ruling by the Texas Supreme Court.
In March, the court ordered the city to remove the word “anyone” before language describing who would be penalized for “sitting or lying down on a public sidewalk or sleeping outdoors in and near the Downtown area and the area around the University of Texas campus,” to make the vote fairer.
While the election was still months away from this language change, the political battle overProp B had just begun. Soon after Prop B started to gain more traction, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott rushed to dish out more than $43,000 on advertising in favor of reinstating the ban.
“Governor Abbott has been clear that ensuring the well-being of cities in Texas and the homeless population is a priority,” a campaign spokesperson said in a statement. “The campaign placed digital ads advocating the passage of Prop B to undo the damage done by the city of Austin’s previous reversal on a homeless camping ban. The homeless situation that the city of Austin has created endangers the health and safety of the homeless and does nothing to provide for the dignity of the homeless. And it certainly harms the living conditions of people in the entire city.”
Abbott previously received scrutiny from corporate media and Democrats when he condemned the city’s homelessness problem after a fatal knife attack by a homeless man on a restaurant kitchen manager in 2020.
“I’m not attacking homelessness,” Abbott wrote on Twitter. “I’m criticizing the lawlessness promoted by the City of Austin. The City’s top job is public safety and they are failing. Yesterday’s tragic murder is the most recent example.”
You are exactly right.
I’m not attacking homelessness.
I’m criticizing the lawlessness promoted by the City of Austin.
The City’s top job is public safety and they are failing.
Yesterday’s tragic murder is the most recent example. https://t.co/PMtGOmoYBM
— Greg Abbott (@GregAbbott_TX) January 4, 2020
The leftist ideologues who govern Austin don’t see it that way. Allowing people to sleep on the streets with impunity, Adler argues, is ethical and humane, and allows people to settle down in safer areas. But even those against bringing back a public camping ban see a problem with letting hundreds of people set up tents in neighborhoods, on public sidewalks, and under highway overpasses.
“Once you’re in the middle of it, you change your mind of how you approach this situation. As your safety declines, so does your compassion. Every time I have to pick up human sh-t, my liberal-ness just got lowered what one more notch,” one Austin woman, a self-described progressive, recently told VICE News.
May elections in Austin typically have lower voter turnout than those held in November along with state and federal elections, but that hasn’t stopped leftists and anti-Prop B organizations such as Homes Not Handcuffs from busing homeless people to the polls to try to defeat Prop B. Despite its bipartisan beginnings, the organizations opposed to Prop B are painting it as “a cruel attempt by Republican strategists at ‘Save Austin Now’ to lock up homeless Austinites instead of helping them.”
“Prop B would put in place hefty fines and potential jail time for simply being homeless, without providing any housing, health care, or services. Let’s support real solutions to homelessness, not cruel and ineffective fines and jail time,” the Homes Not Handcuffs website states.
While leftists argue that banning camping in the city will just force homeless people to relocate to more rural areas, data suggests that lifting restrictions instead incentivizes homeless people to leave shelters that have strict regulations on drug and alcohol use and instead set up camp in public places.
“After the policy was instituted, the sheltered homeless count decreased 20 percent while the unsheltered count increased by 45 percent, according to the City of Austin’s latest data,” Save Austin Now reports. “In other words, 1/5 of Austin’s homeless left shelters for the streets while the overall number of homeless simultaneously shot up.”