Austinites are angry with their city council.
On Wednesday afternoon, over 150 citizens packed City Hall and testified to the Austin City Council about their recent homeless camping law, many angry with the council’s controversial decision.
“I want to thank the Austin Police and Fire Departments. You’re the only thing standing between us and total bedlam,” said citizen Cleo Petricek.
Back in June, the city council passed a law allowing homeless people to camp, sit, and lie in public spaces across the city, a decision that has since created makeshift “cities” of sidewalk campsites and sparked intense community backlash.
“We were told that children and families are not vulnerable and have no right to feel unsafe—we know better,” said Petricek, a former probation officer and social worker.
“Everybody in Austin is talking about the camps and the trash everywhere,” said Susan Albertson, who said her younger brother is a homeless drug addict. She said the reason she testified was because of her daughter, a University of Texas student whose safety is now threatened because of the council’s decision.
“She lives in a first floor apartment … and there are currently 100 registered sex offenders listed as transient and living on the streets of Austin,” Albertson said. “Because you’ve allowed them to sleep anywhere, they can now sleep 100 feet from my daughter’s bedroom window and front door. Because you’ve put my daughter’s safety at risk, I will not stop fighting until the entire camping ordinance is repealed or until enough of y’all are removed from your positions and there are enough people sitting in those seats who care about the residents of Austin.”
“In short, we need help now … daily, we are dealing with prevalent lawlessness,” said George Scariano, co-owner of local downtown-area Royal Blue Grocery. He said after 13 years of doing business amid the homeless, whom his business donates to weekly, the council’s recent decision sparked a wildfire of problems.
“What had been a gradually eroding situation downtown for years still felt manageable. On July 1, what had been a smoldering fire felt like kerosene had been dumped on it,” Scariano said, explaining that aggressive behavior, brazen shoplifting, and violent threats to his employees and customers have skyrocketed. He also said he’s now considering closing one of his stores at 6 p.m.—six hours early—to protect his staff and customers.
The public hearing Wednesday was the latest in a series of packed townhalls the council has hosted since their decision. Because of the torrent of public response, including a petition with over 32,000 signatures so far, the council is now considering reversing parts of their law.
“This policy has been a disaster. It’s been an absolute disaster for our city,” Travis County Republican Party Chairman Matt Mackowiak told the council. “Unfortunately, you have made our city less safe, and today you are admitting it.”
The council’s current proposed changes to their law, however, are limited and selective, choosing to ban homeless camping only on certain streets.
“So, for people who live and work on those streets, they are apparently worth more than everyone else who lives in Austin,” said Mackowiak. “Every other street, every other neighborhood in our city, is going to become less safe because you have cherry-picked six streets and decided to make them safe from homeless camping.”
Wednesday’s meeting also comes after the University of Texas police chief wrote an open letter to Mayor Steve Adler, urging him to stop allowing homeless camping near campus.
“Police frequently respond to predatory and harassing behavior along the ‘Drag’ and other areas along the perimeter of campus where U.T. students, staffers, and faculty members often feel threatened and where some of the homeless community are victims themselves,” wrote Chief David Carter. “Large numbers of students, faculty members, and staff members travel on foot throughout the day and night, and permitting camping, sitting, and lying down in those areas poses similar public health and safety risk.”
The council will host another public hearing on the issue Friday, September 20, at 9 a.m. and is expected to make a final vote on changes to their law.