AUSTIN — After scenes of trashed streets, rampant squalor and filth, and increased tragic violence across Texas’ capital city, a group of Austinites are working to close the floodgates of chaos opened by the Democrat-run city hall.

Save Austin Now, a self-described “nonpartisan educational nonprofit made up of organizations and concerned citizens,” announced Tuesday they submitted a petition of more than 24,000 signatures to city hall to try to stop their harmful homeless camping law.

The story originally began in June 2019, when the all-Democrat Austin City Council passed an ordinance allowing homeless individuals to camp in nearly every public space throughout the city (except for city hall, notably).

The council’s action sparked a wildfire of public backlash and led to a swarm of new tent cities, a drastic increase in the city’s homeless population, a more dangerous public environment, and a crowd of law enforcement, elected officials, and more than 124,000 citizens calling for the council to reverse their decision.

Homicides increased 64 percent year over year in 2020 (along with double-digit spikes in other forms of violent crime). And on top of all of that, the city council cut the local police budget by one-third.

Now, the group of Austin activists seeks to restore some safety to the city by undoing the council’s camping ordinance.

“Austinites from every zip code, every neighborhood and every demographic have signed our petition,” said the group’s co-founder Matt Mackowiak, who is also the Travis County GOP chair.

Mayor Steve Adler, camping ordinance author [Councilmember] Greg Casar and the City Council refuse to admit that their policy is a disaster for our city, with the homeless population exploding … violent crime rising, mounds of trash everywhere, parks being ruined, and worst of all, not one homeless person in a tent receiving any help at all. Voters will now be able to fix the mess created by the Austin City Council.

“Residents should be able to walk to a park, or to school, or to their car without being accosted or feeling unsafe,” said group co-founder Cleo Petricek, a self-proclaimed lifelong Democrat. “Our city leaders have not listened to the residents. Now residents can have their voice heard. We all want a safe city and we all should demand a safe neighborhood.”

“We in Austin are seeing firsthand what happens when people are permitted to languish in camps for days, weeks, months, or years in the name of compassion and civil rights,” said Dewitt Peart, president and CEO of the Downtown Austin Alliance, during the contentious public debate in 2019. “True compassion and empathy do not involve letting anyone harm themselves or the public.”

“We believe that the combination of banning homeless camping citywide, extending the sit/lie ordinance to the [University of Texas] campus and surrounding areas, and banning panhandling at night will dramatically improve the ability for police to be a front line in getting homeless the services and help they need, while protecting both students and the homeless from those who wish to prey on their vulnerabilities,” said activist Joell McNew, president of student safety advocacy group SafeHorns.

If the city clerk verifies the petition signatures, which must be completed by February 12, the camping issue will be put to a public vote in the upcoming May election.

Prior to Tuesday, Save Austin Now had tried to submit a similar petition effort to city hall in July of last year, but the city clerk rejected the more than 24,000 signatures, forcing the group to start again from zero.

Mackowiak and Petricek filed a still-pending lawsuit against the city, claiming they mishandled the validation process, but the group still managed to collect and self-certify the new petition drive, saying there’s no question it meets the city requirements.

“We are absolutely 100 percent certain we have turned in at least 20,000 petitions from registered voters in Austin,” said Mackowiak, “which means we will be on the ballot in May of 2021.”

Jacob Asmussen

Jacob Asmussen is a Senior Journalist for Texas Scorecard. He attended the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor and in 2017 earned a double major in public relations and piano performance.