Austin City Council Lagging on Enforcement of Homeless Camping Ban

Residents of Austin, TX celebrated after Prop B, which reinstated the homeless camping ban, was approved. Both right and left-leaning Austinites had become fed up with the disturbing amounts of homeless people camping in tents on public property. However, more than a month after residents voted to put the ban back in place, the city council has yet to move forward with a plan to enforce the ban.

Austonia reported:

Police can start issuing citations to homeless residents who continue camping in restricted areas on Sunday, more than a month after Austin voters approved Prop B. But Austin City Council has yet to identify places where such residents can go, legally and safely.

Members shelved discussion of the topic during virtual meetings on Monday and Tuesday, citing time constraints, and mostly rejected city staff’s suggestions for potential sanctioned encampment sites last month. Meanwhile, the grounds of City Hall remain the site of a camp-in protest.

Mayor Steve Adler admitted that the council had “danced around” the homelessness issue during a special meeting that was held on Monday. “With Proposition B and the vote of the community I think we have an obligation to stop people from camping and tenting in public spaces, and the (city) manager’s been charged with that,” he said.

However, members of the city staff indicated they need more direction from the council on how to designate areas for campsites and guidelines on how to pay for these areas. The city’s government is under a time crunch because the Austin City Council starts a six-week summer recess next week. Adler signaled that after the break is over, he plans to make the land development code more of a priority.

Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey issued a memo outlining the criteria of a potential site for camping. These guidelines include:

  • Potential 2-year temporary use

  • At least 2 acres per 50 people

  • Access to public transportation and basic retail services

  • Low wildfire and flood risk

  • Proximity to schools

Grey indicated that these criteria “severely limits the use of City-owned land as an option for consideration” and that they need more input from the city council on how they should proceed. “But its implementation hinges on council providing such direction by Thursday, says city staff. There is no agenda item regarding encampments, which means council can’t take formal action,” according to Austonia.

Save Austin Now, a local group that was instrumental in getting the camping ban reinstated, slammed the council for its inaction. “Austinites aren’t getting what they voted for; they’re getting the runaround; and getting angrier and more fired up to oust all existing leadership as a result,” the group tweeted on Monday.

The city of Austin announced a phased plan to put the ban back into effect and has considered creating sanctioned encampments. These would be areas in which homeless individuals could live without fear of arrest. However, Austonia noted that “when staff presented 45 options last month, members pushed back.”

Councilmember Leslie Pool on May 18 argued that “the sites that you’ve designated…they just won’t work.”

Law enforcement recently attempted to clear out homeless people living in tents in front of City Hall but were unsuccessful. The campers were “each offered multiple services but refused” according to a tweet from Save Austin Now.

In some cases, it might seem appropriate to give the benefit of the doubt. After all, it has only been a few weeks since residents voted to reinstate the ban. However, at this point, it does not seem that any real action will be taken before the recess commences.

This raises a valid question: Does Austin’s government truly wish to solve this problem? Moreover, do they actually intend to honor the wishes of the voters, most of whom are being affected by this issue?

The homeless problem created by Adler and the city council has had a decidedly negative impact on the city and its residents. Crime involving homeless suspects has seen a drastic increase over the past two years. The Austin Statesman reported:

Violent crimes with suspects who were experiencing homelessness rose 10% last year, the largest increase in the past five years, according to data from Austin police.

In most of those cases, the victim was also homeless. In fact, the number of cases involving both homeless suspects and victims has been steadily growing — and representing an increasing percentage of all violent crime in the city — since at least 2014, the data show.

If the problem is not addressed, these numbers will only rise further. But councilmembers are unable – or unwilling – to deal with the issue. The question is: How much longer will Austinites put up with their city’s lack of action?