Austin voters will be making decisions May 1 on eight propositions, one of which has sparked tens of thousands of dollars in political spending and garnered attention from community activists, city officials and state lawmakers ahead of election day.

If passed by voters, the ballot proposition would result in the criminalization of activities such as camping and “solicitation” or panhandling in public spaces as well as lying or sitting down on sidewalks and sleeping outdoors around downtown Austin and the University of Texas campus.

The practices targeted in the ballot proposition stem from Austin City Council’s 2019 decision to remove penalties for such activities, which critics of the city’s current approach say has resulted in “chaos” as the city’s homeless population and encampments have grown.

“Nobody is safe in these unregulated encampments. No one can say this has been a solution. It’s not, for anyone,” said Cleo Petricek, co-founder of the Save Austin Now political action committee behind the petition that landed Proposition B on the May 1 ballot.

Petricek said she became politically engaged with the issue of homelessness in Austin after seeing a rise in local encampments and hearing from residents worried about public safety issues related to the sites. Petricek cited increases in crime, including drug use, and fire incidents as concerns she and other community members now share in relation to homeless encampments. One month ahead of the Proposition B vote, fires at several encampments renewed attention on the city’s camping policy and led several politicians to weigh in on the issue and its connection to the ballot proposition.

“There is a criminal element that flourishes from these unregulated encampments, and I feel like no one was addressing that and listening to the needs of this community,” she said. “It’s no longer shocking; it’s something that basically Austin has basically accepted now, which, it wasn’t like this two years ago.”

Critics of the proposition and Save Austin Now's campaign agree that the current state of unsheltered homelessness and public-facing campgrounds in the city is untenable. However, nonprofits and community groups focused on supporting Austin’s homeless, including youth, the disabled and victims of violence, say the proposition’s focus is misguided at best and will likely worsen safety around homeless encampments and make the city’s ability to mitigate the issue more difficult.

Amanda Lewis, co-founder of the sexual violence advocacy group Survivor Justice Project, called arguments in favor of the proposition due to crime among the homeless “a scare tactic and a fear tactic.”

“Not to say that abuse doesn’t happen everywhere, because it really does, but it’s not a root cause at all of perpetration of violence against women, and it further stigmatizes and makes it harder for us to address the root cause issues," Lewis said.

Summer Wright, a member of the youth homelessness engagement group Austin Youth Collective who experienced homelessness in the past, said concerns over personal safety and violence can often push individuals to leave their homes or avoid homeless shelters, thus ending up on the streets or in public encampments. And critics of the ballot proposition said any potential changes to city ordinance aimed at housing rather than criminalization would be more effective in reducing the number of people living on the streets.

“When I think about the solutions ... it really is about getting at the root and shoring up these community resources, and I think of course Prop B does none of those things,” Lewis said. “[Proposition B] feels a lot like pushing people into the shadows, which for women in homelessness is more dangerous. That’s a deeper level of vulnerability.”

Chris Harris, criminal justice project director at the nonprofit justice center Texas Appleseed, also noted racial disparities that could result from criminalization measures. Harris said an analysis of 2018 camping tickets, tracking citations issued through the year prior to the city rescinding its camping ban, showed a proportion of tickets given to Black people that was well above Austin's estimated Black population and unsheltered Black population at the time.

“Ultimately, this points to this being the wrong approach to dealing with this issue, one that’s going to lead to racially disparate outcomes and going to actually exacerbate the issue of homelessness in our community,” he said.

Alongside public safety concerns, Proposition B opponents including Harris; community organizer Carmen Llanes Pulido; and Tanya Lavelle, a policy specialist with Disability Rights Texas, highlighted the potential legal effects of re-criminalizing practices associated with homelessness. Shifting the city’s policy on public camping, sitting and sleeping could lead to individuals experiencing homelessness becoming trapped in a cycle of paying fines and attending court dates, they said, resulting in challenges with securing official identification, housing and employment.

“These ordinances, when enforced, actually create incredible barriers to actually getting out of the situation of homelessness and really actually keep people in that situation longer,” Harris said.

Chris Davis, a communications manager with the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition of Austin and Travis County, said the current camping situation, while not ideal in the long term, has improved accessibility and relationship-building between service providers and homeless individuals. Another effect of banning more visible encampments, he said, would be a loss of trust and likely drop-off in care for those now living in the city's camps.

Considering steps forward

Regardless of the election outcome, Petricek said Save Austin Now plans to continue outreach and education, and push for more solutions from city officials and new rapid rehousing efforts. If the measure is approved by voters and encampments are to be shut down citywide, she said immediate solutions could include establishing designated, government-managed campsites away from downtown or converting vacant properties owned by the city of Austin into temporary housing sites.

“You don’t need a proposition to find safe campgrounds for them, because living the way that they are in unregulated encampments is not safe for them, and it’s not safe for communities,” Petricek said. “The reason I got involved with this is because communities of color, working-class communities, are the most impacted by this, and everyone is ignoring that and not holding the city council accountable for this.”

Proposition B's opponents also highlighted new developments at the city level as immediate steps forward. The first phase of Austin’s ongoing Housing-Focused Homeless Encampment Assistance Link, or HEAL, program aimed at clearing out four select encampments remains in progress. And new commitments from government, business, nonprofit and philanthropic entities stemming from a recent civic summit could send hundreds of millions of dollars toward housing thousands of homeless individuals within three years.

As those initiatives are rolled out, though, activists said they hope the outcome of the May 1 election will not minimize community focus on the city’s homelessness situation and see enthusiasm for large-scale solutions take a step back whether encampments remain downtown.

“The most pressure Austin has ever felt to house people is right now, rather than when it was criminalized and out of sight. Criminalizing it and pushing people away so that people don’t have to think about it will have the opposite effect,” Wright said. “To pass Prop B and ... have the problem ‘go away’ while still very much remaining in our area takes all that wind and it sucks it right out of the sails, and then we’re back to, not square one but square two or three.”