Election 2020 could resurrect battle over Austin’s homelessness ordinances after petition gains over 24,000 signatures

From left: Austin City Council Members Ann Kitchen, Kathie Tovo and Greg Casar and Mayor Steve Adler answered questions over the summer regarding homelessness ordinances and plans for a new homeless shelter in South Austin. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)
From left: Austin City Council Members Ann Kitchen, Kathie Tovo and Greg Casar and Mayor Steve Adler answered questions over the summer regarding homelessness ordinances and plans for a new homeless shelter in South Austin. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)

From left: Austin City Council Members Ann Kitchen, Kathie Tovo and Greg Casar and Mayor Steve Adler answered questions over the summer regarding homelessness ordinances and plans for a new homeless shelter in South Austin. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)

Austin City Council’s June 2019 decision to fully decriminalize public camping, sitting and lying down across the city—a move leaders said would lift a legal burden off the homeless population—resulted in a tense fallout among residents and an aggressive, months-long debate in the community over how to best respond to a growing homelessness crisis.

The intense debate carried into the fall, with City Council finally deciding, in a contested 7-4 vote, to ban public camping from sidewalks throughout the city but permit sitting and lying down unless it is 15 feet from an operating business. At the time, District 1 City Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison said “not one” of the issues she dealt with as a City Council member “provoked such an intense reaction” as the homelessness ordinances.

One local group, unsatisfied with City Council’s decision, has been working all year to resurrect the battle over those ordinances and on July 20 took a major step forward. Save Austin Now, officially a 501(c)(4) social welfare nonprofit organization headed by Travis County GOP chairman Matt Mackowiak, submitted a citizen-initiated petition, proposing an effective reversal of City Council’s 2019 action, the city clerk confirmed. Mackowiak said the petition carried 24,087 signatures. Under city law, such citizen-initiated law changes need 20,000 validated signatures to gain entry on a city ballot.

The clerk will spend the next few weeks validating signatures to ensure that at least 20,000 of the signees are locally registered voters. If so, the question of whether to reinstate the citywide camping ban will appear on the Nov. 3 ballot. During a July 20 press conference, Mackowiak said he was confident in the number of valid signatures and maintained the petition’s aim was not against the homeless community.

“We are not anti-homeless; we are anti-camping,” Mackowiak said. “Our coalition ... [believes] that the [current] camping ordinance is not only not good for our city, but that it is not good for the homeless. It is not compassionate to tell someone they can sleep on the sidewalk in 95-degree heat in July.”

The petition specifically proposes the city reinstate a citywide camping ban, prohibit sitting and lying in the downtown area, and make panhandling illegal between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.

Austin has seen a growing homeless population since 2017. Between 2019 and 2020, Austin saw an 11% increase in its homelessness numbers, from 2,255 to 2,506, and a 45% surge in its unsheltered homeless population, from 1,086 to 1,574, according to annual point-in-time estimates by the local Ending Community Homelessness Coalition. This year marked the only time since 2010—the earliest date available in ECHO’s data—that Austin’s unsheltered homeless population outnumbered those in shelters.

In a op-ed published in the Austin Chronicle on July 17, ECHO Executive Director Matt Mollica said City Council’s decision to lift bans of camping, sitting and lying down improved the accuracy of this year’s point-in-time estimate and “decriminalized the basic human need of having somewhere safe to sleep.”

Chris Harris, director of criminal justice programs at Texas Appleseed, said Save Austin Now’s aims are “very counter to the values of Austin.” Harris, who has been at the front lines of pushing for changes to how the criminal justice system treats the homeless population, said he was confident that Austinites would not support an “initiative to harm the people who are the most marginalized in our community.”

Harris also criticized Save Austin Now’s campaign as “deceptive.” Save Austin Now is registered with the IRS as a 501(c)(4) social welfare nonprofit organization, not a political action committee. The 501(c)(4) designation allows the organization to lobby for law changes as long as lobbying and political activity accounts for less than 50% of its expenses.

Mackowiak told Community Impact Newspaper that much of the effort behind the petition has been volunteer work, but some canvassers were paid.

The designation also allows the organization to keep its donors private. Mackowiak said the group has raised more than $150,000 through more than 1,000 donations. Community Impact Newspaper was unable to independently verify this by press time. Mackowiak said if the clerk validates the petition, then Save Austin Now will form a PAC.
By Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, USA Today and several other local outlets along the east coast.


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