As Austinites continue to face an alarming public safety risk, one of the city’s top officials tasked with solving it is quitting after only a month on the job.
Lori Pampilo Harris, Austin’s new Homelessness Strategy Officer, is leaving her job because of “family obligations.”
“Lori moved to Austin [from Orlando] to begin her position as quickly as possible, which meant that she relocated to Austin ahead of her family,” read an email from Assistant City Manager Rodney Gonzalez to the mayor and city manager. “Lori’s family obligations are such that she will be transitioning to a consultant role rather than a full-time employee role.”
“This was not a decision I made lightly, and I’ve had previous conversations with my immediate supervisor,” Harris said in a statement. “I’m deeply appreciative of their understanding and willingness to work with me in a way that allows me to meet my family obligations and continue the work we’ve started.”
After a yearlong search, Harris was hired as the city’s highly anticipated “homelessness czar.” Many city council members, including Jimmy Flannigan, set high expectations for the position, looking to Harris to work towards solving the homelessness problem. They were surprised by her quick departure.
“Lori still will be in this community as a consultant, apparently, and that’s great,” said Flannigan.
Homelessness in Austin has steadily been on the rise for the past several years, but the situation drastically worsened over the summer after the city council passed a controversial camping law. In June, the city council made it legal for vagrants to camp, sit, and lie down in public spaces across the city (but not outside city hall). Since then, Austinites have witnessed a predictable outbreak of campsites and tent cities on sidewalks and streets, and underneath overpasses.
The new law also caused a public health and safety risk, prompting over 34,000 citizens to sign a petition calling for its reversal. The public backlash only intensified as the University of Texas police chief wrote Mayor Steve Adler an open letter, urging him to reverse the decision for the sake of students’ security.
Over the summer, citizens also packed numerous townhalls, 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.
After a tumultuous three months of alarming 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.
After September’s council meeting, Mayor Adler posted a statement on Twitter dodging blame for the situation and telling the city manager to do something about the law.
Soon after, 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 the new homeless camping law to be overturned. 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.
Mayor Adler and the city council are expected to resume discussion on the situation in the next few weeks, now without their chief strategy officer.