Austinites will vote on homeless camping ban in May

Austinites will vote whether to overturn a city policy that allows public camping. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austinites will vote whether to overturn a city policy that allows public camping. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)

Austinites will vote whether to overturn a city policy that allows public camping. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)

Nearly two years after City Council first made the controversial decision to effectively decriminalize homelessness by lifting some bans on public camping, sitting and lying down, and solicitation, Austinites will decide the fate of the laws.

City Clerk Jannette Goodall announced Feb. 4 that the petition submitted by the group Save Austin Now on Jan. 19, which aims at overturning City Council’s 2019 decision, had more than the necessary 20,000 valid signatures to reach the May 1 ballot. City Council has to officially submit the ballot language for the May 1 election by Feb. 12. City Council is eyeing a Feb. 9 special-called meeting for the procedure.

The successful effort by Save Austin Now follows its failed attempt to put the question on the November 2020 ballot. The group submitted a petition then, but the clerk determined it did not have more than 20,000 valid signatures as required by city law. Matt Mackowiak, co-founder of Save Austin Now and chair of the Travis County GOP, has challenged the clerk’s claim in a still-pending lawsuit.

“Today’s news is a welcome development for Austinites who only want to live in a safe and clean city,” Mackowiak said in a press release. “The Mayor and the City Council will never fix it. In fact, they are unconscionably making it worse. We must save our city on May 1st.”

A city spokesperson confirmed the question has to go on the May 1 ballot since it is a citizen-initiated ordinance change, which, by state law, must be voted on the soonest regular election date.

With concerns over homelessness reaching a boiling point, City Council in June 2019 voted to lift its bans on public camping, sitting and lying down, and solicitation. The decision came as advocates and the city’s own auditor reported the laws and its punishments, often enforced on the homeless population, make it more difficult for people to exit homelessness.

A 2017 city audit called the bans ineffective and inefficient in addressing homelessness. The audit reported out of 18,000 citations issued between 2014-16, people frequently did not appear in court, which often led to arrest warrants that could hurt a person’s prospects for an apartment or job. The audit also highlighted constitutional violations baked into the ordinances, such as freedom of speech being breached by the no-solicitation law.

The decision drew stark political lines between Austinites, and the summer was filled with heated debate. City Council came back in October 2019 and reinstalled some of the rules, such as prohibitions on camping on the sidewalk and sitting and lying down less than 15 feet from an operating business, back into place.

Save Austin Now has been working since February 2020 to gain support for overturning City Council’s decision; however, funding for the group remains a mystery. Officially, it is registered as a 501(c)4 educational nonprofit, which means it does not have to disclose its donors. In a press release announcing the petition validation Feb. 4, Mackowiak said Save Austin Now will now register as a political action committee and begin raising money to campaign on the issue.

Austin’s homeless population has been on a steady incline in recent years. The annual point-in-time count in 2020—a single-night hand count of the homeless population—revealed a year-over-year 45% increase in the unsheltered homeless population. The pandemic has also placed pressure on the city’s homelessness challenges. The city will not conduct its annual hand count of the unsheltered population, and Matt Mollica, the executive director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, told Community Impact Newspaper in November he thinks the economic impact of the pandemic has led to an increase in homelessness.
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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