In June 2019, Austin leadership voted to roll back ordinances that prohibited camping and panhandling across town. The move, which came as a shock to many at the time, represented a key shift in the city’s desire to take on deep-seated, systemic issues with bold, big-picture thinking aimed at addressing problems at their root causes. It also sent a message to Texans, especially Gov. Greg Abbott, that, if the state wouldn’t step up and take action on the rapidly growing issue, the capital city would.
“I know that changing these ordinances will be unpopular with some people. I’m not trying to downplay the challenges that we’re going to face, but we can take on those challenges in a better way,” Council Member Greg Casar said before the vote. “We can house people. We can serve people. We can address the core issues. We can improve all of our safety, rather than perpetuating instability and insecurity.”
In the nearly two years since, Austin has taken a number of steps to establish systems to aid people experiencing homelessness break the cycle of poverty. Most notably, the city has allocated north of $30 million to purchase four hotels that, in addition to providing hundreds of permanent, supportive housing units, now serve as key cogs for resources like medical care, mental health access, and job placement services. While these efforts are just the first of many needed to curb Austin’s homelessness crisis, they’re ambitious and forward-thinking. They also wouldn’t have been possible without the City Council’s decision to lift its camping ban, since the hotels were purchased in part by funds that would’ve otherwise been used to police and incarcerate unhoused individuals.
Despite these strides, Austinites head to the polls tomorrow to vote on Proposition B—a ballot referendum created by Travis County GOP Chairman Matt Mackowiak’s Save Austin Now coalition. If passed, the initiative would reinstate the city’s camping ordinance, sweep affordability issues under the rug, and criminalize homelessness once again. More importantly, it would serve as the latest reminder that Republicans aren’t remotely interested in solving our society’s most pressing problems.
Prop B does nothing in the way of providing alternative ways to connect people experiencing homelessness to critical aid. It doesn’t increase funding for mental health care; it doesn’t allocate money for shelters, permanent housing, social workers, or propose any moves to confront Austin’s skyrocketing cost of living or our economy’s ever-widening wealth gap. And it certainly doesn’t feign any interest in expressing compassion for those relegated to living on the streets. Rather, Prop B is the ultimate combination of fear-mongering and NIMBY-ism that’s fueled by disinformation and conservative propaganda spouted by the likes of Gov. Abbott about the dangers posed by unhoused residents. In the eyes of its proponents, the tents (and the people who inhabit them) are a blight on the city that needs to be erased, by hook or by crook.
What’s been lost throughout this conversation, though, is there’s also a strong economic argument for keeping Austin’s current camping policy in place. Policing, arresting, and incarcerating people living on the streets is expensive and a poor use of resources. Case in point: A 2017 City of Austin audit found that local police issued 18,000 tickets for camping, sitting, lying, or panhandling during the three years prior. 90 percent of people cited failed to appear in court; a warrant for their arrest was then issued in three-quarters of those cases. So, instead of pouring public dollars into law enforcement practices that actively make it harder for people to break the cycle of poverty (since criminal records make it harder for someone to get a job or gain approval for housing), it makes far more economic sense to invest city resources into things like purchasing hotels and broadening social services.
Let’s be clear: Nobody in Austin enjoys the sight of tents lining the street and scattered under highway overpasses. It’s an utter tragedy to see so many people relegated to living in such dire conditions, especially in one of the richest cities in the wealthiest country in the world. But the fact of the matter is that reinstating a camping ban—whether in the capital city or statewide, as state lawmakers are currently pushing for in the legislature—won’t address why those people are there in the first place or strive to help them escape their circumstances. All it will do is ensure that their existence, their struggle, is out of sight and out of mind.
In that vein, tomorrow’s vote will serve as a key inflection point not just for Austin or Texas, but America as a whole. At some point, we’re going to have to acknowledge the fact that homelessness is a symptom of a myriad of large, complex, and ugly issues plaguing our country. Even more, we must recognize that it’s going to take a concerted effort spanning decades, not a couple of years, to begin solving.
The question, then, is whether Austin is willing to continue having the difficult—but necessary—conversations about how to make its streets safer and its policies more equitable, compassionate, and decisive. We’ll find out soon enough.
Photo: Dustin Ground/Wikimedia Commons