AUSTIN — Four months of alarming public safety risk. 35,000 petition signatures. Calls from the Texas governor and multiple law enforcement officials—and finally, the Austin City Council has changed their controversial homeless law, but only in part.
Thursday night, the city council voted 7-4 to change select parts of their recent homeless camping law, which has sparked a blazing wildfire of controversy throughout the city over the past few months.
The story began in June, when the council made it legal for vagrants to camp, sit, and lie down in public spaces across the city (but, notably, not outside city hall). Since then, Austinites have witnessed a predictable outbreak of campsites and tent cities on sidewalks, streets, and underneath overpasses.
The new law also caused a public health and safety risk, prompting over 35,000 citizens to sign a petition calling for its reversal. Citizens also packed numerous townhalls over the summer, testifying to the harmful consequences of the law and angry that registered sex offenders were among those now allowed to sleep right next to apartments and elementary schools.
The public backlash only intensified as the University of Texas’ police chief spoke out, writing Mayor Steve Adler an open letter urging him to reverse the decision for the sake of students’ security.
After a tumultuous three months of safety risk and public anger—and after returning from a five-week vacation—the city council met in September, supposedly prepared to finally make changes to the law; however, the council ended up taking no action, postponing even a discussion on the matter until mid-October.
“We didn’t get there [to a decision] today because we weren’t ready. But we need to,” Mayor Adler said. “I think the community is expecting us to actually act.”
Following September’s council meeting, the problems only worsened. Mayor Adler posted a statement on Twitter dodging blame for the situation and telling the city manager to do something about the law, even suggesting ideas such as equipping police officers with tape measures or string to enforce a 4-foot clearance space for sidewalk campsites.
Soon after the mayor’s statements, several more prominent officials spoke out on the situation: Austin Police Chief Brian Manley; Texas Gov. Greg Abbott; and U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, who represents much of downtown Austin, joined in the chorus calling for Adler to overturn the new homeless camping law.
Abbott even told the mayor that if he did not take responsibility to improve the safety of Austinites by November 1, the state would need to step in to protect the public.
As the council deliberated changes at Thursday’s long-awaited meeting, Chief Manley was present to reiterate his position to the members.
“My recommendation, as I’ve stated before, would be the banning of camping, sitting, and lying across all sidewalks across the city,” he stated, saying that although it wasn’t an answer to the homeless problem at large, public order needed to be restored.
“It just seemed like we had a better handle on things prior to June,” Manley said.
In the end, the council refused Manley’s—and many others’—full recommendation. They decided to reverse only parts of the June law.
Now, homeless individuals will not be allowed to camp on sidewalks—but they will still be allowed to sit and lie down on them, as long they are 15 feet away from a door to a business or home.
Additionally, homeless people will not be allowed to camp in wildfire-risk zones or within a quarter-mile of the city’s homeless shelter—but the issue of camping near highways, street medians, ADA ramps, or creeks and river banks was left unaddressed.
“Mayor Adler, with all due respect, now I understand what discrimination is,” citizen Janie Villarreal told the council Thursday, upset over their pick-and-choose approach to safety. Villarreal is a small-business owner and an Austinite of 62 years.
“You’re saying you’re going to clean up certain areas because of health and safety issues. Why are we not as worthy as the other neighborhoods? It just does not make any sense to me,” she added.
After the over-10-hour meeting, the council also indefinitely postponed several more resolutions related to homelessness. The new changes, however, will take effect in 10 days.
Gov. Abbott released a statement following the council’s decision, saying, “The state will monitor how well the new policy actually reduces the skyrocketing complaints about attacks by the homeless and other public safety concerns. The state will also continue to monitor water quality for E. coli and other bacteria.”