Austin’s new homeless policy under fire from governor, businesses

Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

By Bethany Blankley | The Center Square

After Austin’s mayor and the City Council rescinded a ban on homeless encampments in June, a public uproar ensued over a potential public health crisis, and brought national attention to the state’s capital.

Since June, Austin residents have attended numerous town hall meetings, testifying to the harmful consequences of the decision, which allows individuals to sleep in public areas next to residential neighborhoods, elementary schools, businesses and elsewhere.

More than 34,000 Austin residents signed a petition demanding the ordinance be changed.

Their cries echo those of the University of Texas police chief, who wrote an open letter to Austin Mayor Steve Adler urging him to reverse the decision “for the sake of students’ security.”

After months of hearings, petitions and protests, the City Council and Mayor Steve Adler took a five-week break, pledging to discuss the issue in September, which didn’t happen. Now the issue of homeless encampments is slated to be addressed Oct. 17.

Homeless encampments have sprung up all over Austin, primarily under the highway overpasses including the Interstate 35 double-decker, which cuts through the heart of Austin blocks away from the state capitol, the University of Texas, and near numerous businesses.

Tired of delays and expressing concerns for citizens, Gov. Greg Abbott said he would “unleash the full authority of every state agency to protect the health and safety of all Texans” if the City Council does not fix the problem by Nov. 1.

“Further inaction by you 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,” Abbott’s open letter to Adler warned.

Abbott’s call came days after U.S. Congressman Chip Roy also sent a letter to the mayor.

“The ordinance is a lazy approach to dealing with homeless individuals in our community,” Roy, who represents most of Austin, said. “The new ordinance undermines security, harms private property of our citizens, hurts commerce, and endangers those it purports to help – the homeless.”

“It is bad enough to essentially give up on the homeless community by encouraging people to set up tents on the streets, but the city council’s new policy also negatively impacts Austin residents, as well as tourists and visitors,” Roy said. “Allowing homeless people to sleep in nearly all public spaces can lead to increased risks of violence, crime, health issues, and other negative consequences.”

“Some businesses are struggling to keep sidewalks clear,” Abbott said at a press conference Wednesday. “Some homeowners feel threatened. Some homeless are interfering with sidewalks, with street and with rights of way. Feces and used needles are accumulated at alarming rates.”

State agencies that would be tasked with cleaning up Austin include the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state Health and Human Services Commission, and the Texas Department of Transportation.

Democratic Councilman Greg Casar called the letter a threat of “some kind of martial law situation.”

Democrat Councilwoman Delia Garza said Abbott’s “threatening letter and fearmongering about our most vulnerable Texans” was a political ploy designed to score “more political points than, say, reforming gun laws.”

While some people “read this letter as a …threat,” Adler said he took it seriously and chose “to read this letter as an offer of assistance.”

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