Following Austinites' passage of Proposition B in the May 1 election by a more than 15% margin, city officials are now considering how to begin the process of removing the controversial downtown encampments that spurred much of the passion behind the ballot item while planning for possible spaces for the camps' homeless residents to relocate to.
Proposition B passed with 57% support from Austin voters with more than 90,000 people across Travis, Williamson and Hays counties voting in favor of the measure and just over 66,000 against. Once the May 1 election is officially certified, the multi-part proposition will create a city ordinance criminalizing camping in public spaces; panhandling at night; and sitting, lying down and sleeping throughout much of downtown.
Andy Tate, a city of Austin spokesperson, said the city is now in the process of evaluating the enforcement of penalties contained in the new ordinance, which is expected to take effect May 11.
"We will start with education and outreach and will focus first on individuals living in situations that present higher health and safety risks. Outreach will be ongoing as we continue to assess encampment sites and coordinate with our service providers," Tate said in a statement.
While the exact timeline and scope of enforcement for the Proposition B ordinance are yet to be determined, City Council may look to the concept of establishing designated campsites in the near future as a replacement for the unregulated encampments that have become a common sight throughout downtown since 2019. A late addition to council's May 6 meeting agenda centers on a resolution both reaffirming a commitment to mitigating homelessness through work with housing-focused organizations as well as a directive to City Manager Spencer Cronk to research and report to council over the coming weeks on possible strategies for implementing "temporary designated encampments on public land" and expanded tiny homesites for temporary housing.
While the Proposition B ordinance did not include any housing directives alongside the reinstated criminal offenses, leaders with the Save Austin Now political group behind the proposition campaign had highlighted designated campgrounds and expanded tiny homesites as possible temporary solutions to housing the homeless as unofficial downtown camps are cleared out. Save Austin Now co-founder Matt Mackowiak said on election night that Austin leaders should consider a model similar to San Antonio's Haven For Hope campus with on-site services or an increase in the number of microhomes available at public and private sites.
“No. 1, we need to replicate the Haven for Hope model, and we need to do it now. Second, we know that the microhome, tiny-home strategy that we’ve seen work in Community First Village is also now being implemented at Camp Esperanza," Mackowiak said. "We need to take those two facilities and probably multiply them by a factor of 10. ... Those are the models that we know work."
Whether the council resolution up for consideration May 6—authored and sponsored by Council Member Kathie Tovo and co-sponsored by Mayor Steve Adler and Council Members Ann Kitchen, Alison Alter and Pio Renteria—will pass remains to be seen, but if approved as drafted, Cronk would share an initial overview on best practices for designated encampments with council May 14. That report would be followed by a June 1 presentation of a finalized schedule, a cost estimate, a list of potential community partners for the establishment of several designated campgrounds, and a list of public or private spaces "that could accommodate tiny home structures to serve as temporary housing."
Continuing city strategy
Council this month may also cement a citywide objective of housing thousands of individuals in three years that emerged from a recent summit on homelessness with participants including government, business and nonprofit representatives. A resolution passed through the Austin Housing and Planning Committee on May 3 and set to appear on council's May 20 agenda for consideration would direct Cronk to add the goal of housing 3,000 people by April 2024 to the city's strategic housing blueprint.
Goals of securing 2,300 rental units and providing funding for 350 permanent supportive housing units annually were included in the draft resolution out of the housing committee, and the summit plan is not expected to supplant work on the city's in-progress Housing-Focused Homeless Encampment Assistance Link initiative.
“We must pull more of our unhoused neighbors out of tents and into homes with health services and job opportunities,” said Council Member Greg Casar, the chair of the housing and planning committee, in a statement. “Austin’s goals for housing those who are homeless have been far too low for far too long. By housing 3,000 more people in the coming months and years, we can drastically reduce homelessness in our community. This goal was developed at Austin’s homelessness summit, and it should go directly into our city’s housing plan.”
Participants in the homelessness strategy summit, including city officials and staff, have highlighted increased contributions from local governments, businesses, nonprofits and community members as essential to meetings the ambitious goals resulting from the weekslong event. Laura Huffman, president and CEO of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, which served as one of the summit's architects, said some of the convention's top results were a renewed collaboration between community stakeholders and a recognition of need for larger contributions outside local government structures.
"The more we got into discussion, the more buy-in we got from people that had either been working directly or indirectly on this issue. And like a lot of complicated issues, one of the big things that had to happen was people had to get in conversation with one another and agree that this was a complex problem and it was going to require a big set of solutions and serious investment in those solutions," Huffman said.
Alongside housing efforts through the HEAL program and possible city-led steps toward establishing designated campsites, the summit plan is expected to gradually ramp up over the next three years in addition to stabilizing a response system for the newly homeless. According to a city overview of the summit goals, the plan calls for housing a total of 400 people by the end of 2021, increasing to 1,200 people by late 2022 and reaching the 3,000-person benchmark by April 2024, all while establishing a framework for future housing support.
"What was missing from this was essentially a systems approach where you started with an endgame in mind. ... But then beyond that, to have a system that is fully capable of responding to people who become newly homeless inside of 30 days so that we don't have people that are experiencing unsheltered homelessness in Austin for really long periods of time," Huffman said. "It’s not just to house 3,000 people in three years; it’s to make sure that the system that’s generated to do that can also provide long-term solutions for people who find themselves newly homeless."