With Austin's camping ban back in place, housing takes top priority

Tents and encampments lined Cesar Chavez Street downtown following Proposition B's passage in May. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)
Tents and encampments lined Cesar Chavez Street downtown following Proposition B's passage in May. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)

Tents and encampments lined Cesar Chavez Street downtown following Proposition B's passage in May. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)

Austin’s push to address its homelessness crisis continues this spring as a focus on the city’s reinstated public camping ban and its enforcement rose alongside discussion of the long-term path toward housing its unsheltered population.

More than 57% of Austin voters elected May 1 to reinstate criminal bans on camping in public, sitting or lying down on sidewalks, and panhandling downtown. While those on both sides of the election agree that housing the homeless is the ultimate goal, leaders with the Save Austin Now political action committee behind the effort to pass Proposition B said they acted in response to concerns surrounding City Council’s 2019 camping ban rollback.

“This is a sign that a majority of Austin residents decided that they wanted to take their city back. That they just want a safe and clean city for everyone, the residents and the homeless. This policy has been an epic failure,” Save Austin Now co-founder Matt Mackowiak said on election night.

The measure to reinstate Austin’s homelessness ordinances generated back-and-forth discussion and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent leading up to election day. And after voters’ directive to eliminate public camping, panhandling and sitting or lying down went into effect in mid-May, a need for temporary housing emerged even as civic plans to permanently house thousands of the city’s homeless continue.

“There’s nowhere for them to go,” said Matt Mollica, executive director of the nonprofit Ending Community Homelessness Coalition. “I just think about what kind of position to be put in, for someone to say, ‘You can’t stay here.’ And you ask them, ‘Where do I go?’ And they don’t have an answer for that. It’s just really unjust and unfair.”


Election aftermath

In addition to Save Austin Now leading the Proposition B effort, passage was also supported by business advocacy groups such as the Austin Chamber and Downtown Austin Alliance, which cited economic fallout from the city’s previous homelessness policy. Jessica Price, owner of the downtown massage studio AustinDeep, said hers was one of many businesses negatively affected by the city’s loosened ordinances.

“If you don’t live downtown or are not running a business downtown, you’re a little bit more removed from it, so it’s easier to say, ‘Have a heart,’” she said. “It’s been a big deal for the past two years. ... My hope would be that we can [house] homeless people and give them the care they need.”

Proposition B critics expressed concern over the measure’s lack of housing solutions in favor of penalization, saying it could cause potential setbacks for those seeking housing, social services or employment.

“Prop. B is really criminalizing unavoidable behaviors associated with life-sustaining activities,” said Chris Harris, director of Texas Appleseed’s Criminal Justice Project.

The unsheltered population’s visibility was also sustained over the past year due to pandemic guidance advising officials against clearing out encampments. Mollica said that policy was a positive for nonprofits and other groups geared toward homeless outreach and support who found it easier to connect with clients on a regular basis, although that benefit may be lost if those experiencing homelessness are forced to move.

Immediate steps

With new ordinances came the announcement of a phased approach to enforcement starting with weeks of education before citations, arrests or camp cleanups come into play this summer.

In a May 11 press conference, officials including City Manager Spencer Cronk stressed the need for a “safe and humane” approach aimed at diverting those experiencing homelessness away from jail. That announcement prompted Proposition B proponents to speak out against what they say is a lack of urgency in implementation.

“The city has had two years to address this problem, and all they have done is make it worse ... Disrespecting the will of the voters in this way is a ‘slap in the face’ of the nearly 91,000 Austinites who demand their city become safe and clean again for everyone,” Mackowiak and Save Austin Now co-founder Cleo Petricek said in a May 11 statement.

To address the imminent displacement of residents at unregulated campsites, council in early May unanimously moved to explore opening city-sponsored, regulated campgrounds. Cronk, who is expected to report back to council with further details on designated camps through the spring, also said a “broader spectrum” of immediate housing options are under consideration.

Staff released a preliminary list of 45 city-owned properties that could house regulated camps May 18, which included several parks and recreation centers. Some council members expressed apprehension about inclusion of those facilities on the list, which staff will likely refine through community feedback this spring. A second staff report on the topic is due to council June 2.

Council and staff also stressed that sanctioned camps are not a permanent solution. Community First Village and its planned 1,400-micro home expansion has been referenced by both Save Austin Now and city officials as a piece of the housing puzzle. The East Austin master-planned neighborhood managed by nonprofit Mobile Loaves & Fishes currently offers housing for more than 220 residents leaving chronic homelessness, and its future phases are expected to begin development in 2022.

Looking for long-term solutions

Council members and business and community leaders this spring have touted a new plan to permanently curb homelessness in Austin.

Stemming from a March and April stakeholder summit came the plan to ramp up local services, bring more than 3,000 Austinites off the streets and secure over 1,000 new housing units for the homeless by April 2024. In addition, the summit plan calls for establishing a permanent framework to quickly connect those entering homelessness with rehousing resources.

“The more we got into discussion, the more buy-in we got,” said Laura Huffman, president and CEO of the Austin Chamber. “Like a lot of complicated issues, one of the big things that had to happen was people had to ... agree that this was a complex problem and it was going to require a big set of solutions.”

Even with backing from city officials and members of the business community, much of the summit plan’s funding has yet to be secured. With an estimated cost of $515 million to house those 3,000 individuals, around $222 million—just over 43%—of the plan’s scope is tied to expected funding from local and federal sources.

That gap, and the plan’s broad goals, have led summit participants to push for outside contributions as rehousing milestones approach; the plan calls for 100 people rehoused through June and 400 by the end of this year before ramping up through 2022-23 as operations are solidified.

“We still have a long road ahead of us if we want to create a city where homelessness is brief, nonrecurring and rare,” District 10 Council Member Alison Alter said May 6. “The summit has no impact if folks beyond the city don’t join us in these efforts.”


MOST RECENT

The Office of Police Oversight released its first comprehensive report detailing its operations though 2019 and 2020 this June. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)
Office of Police Oversight report finds complaints against Austin police officers went up, but discipline fell in 2020

The new report centers on the office's three main functions, including tracking APD officer discipline, reviewing the city's police policies, and engaging with Austin residents.

Dreamland adding a disc golf course to its Dripping Springs outdoor entertainment and arts offerings in June. (Courtesy Dreamland)
Dripping Springs and Driftwood business news: Dreamland gets disc golf, new dog grooming business gets closer to opening and more

The new disc golf course at the outdoor entertainment venue sits on 42 acres and is free to play through June.

Volunteers of Austin Vaccine Angels gathered after becoming fully vaccinated. (Courtesy Jodi Holzband)
Grassroots groups aimed at vaccine outreach look toward the future

For the past five months, grassroots volunteer groups have been working to connect thousands of Central Texans to COVID-19 vaccines.

Washington Prime Group Inc. owns six area shopping centers, including The Arboretum. (Courtesy The Arboretum)
Owner of Austin-area shopping centers files for bankruptcy; entertainment complex coming to Cedar Park and more top area news

Read the top business and community news from the past week from the Central Texas area.

Photo of a woman and girl walking the trail with the Austin skyline behind them
Travis County commits to electrify fleet, doubles down on climate goals

Commissioners directed staff this week to develop a plan to fully electrify Travis County's fleet of vehicles, a leading source of greenhouse gas emissions for the county.

The Bloomhouse—an 1,100-square-foot home in the hills of West Austin—was built in the 1970s by University of Texas architecture students for fellow student Dalton Bloom. It was featured in the Austin Weird Homes Tour of 2020. (Brian Perdue/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin Weird Homes Tour ends; Z’Tejas to close Arboretum restaurant and more Central Texas news

Read the latest business and community news from the Central Texas area.

Project Connect's proposed Orange Line will run from Tech Ridge, through downtown Austin and to Slaughter Lane. (Rendering courtesy Project Connect)
Project Connect Orange Line design reveals proposed locations for rail stations in North, South Austin

The latest Orange Line design shows potential elevated rail line over I-35, as well as options for the Drag.

Photo of a weird home
Austin's Weird Homes Tour says goodbye—for now

The tour's founders say they are open to a new local operator taking over the event.

The former hotel off I-35 had most recently been used as a COVID-19 homeless Protection Lodge. (Courtesy City of Austin)
East Cesar Chavez encampment residents move into former South Austin hotel

Through Austin's HEAL initiative, residents of an encampment near East Austin's Terrazas Branch Libarary were relocated to a South Austin shelter before that camp is cleared away.

The regional blood bank appealed for further donations in the wake of the June 12 shooting in downtown Austin. (Courtesy We Are Blood)
We Are Blood appeals for blood donations following weekend shooting in downtown Austin

The Central Texas nonprofit also said its blood supply remains depleted due to decreased donations through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Photo of a man holding robotic equipment
Tesla teams up with Austin Community College for manufacturing training and hiring program

The Tesla START program will hire and train ACC students to work with robotics and other advanced manufacturing equipment.

Austin City Council's Housing and Planning Committee met virtually June 15. (Screenshot via City of Austin)
Austin City Council members, city Realtors talk housing market increases and affordability

The median sale price of Austin homes surged past $500,000 through the first five months of 2021.