“This is Austin—we can do whatever we want. You can’t tell me what to do. There’s nothing you or the police can do.”
This wasn’t the first time local business owner Phillip Brown had encountered a defiant homeless man outside his downtown restaurant. Brown, the executive chef for Vince Young Steakhouse, recalled how this particular man was urinating in his parking lot, but that incident was mild compared to the time a homeless man beat Brown in the head or when a homeless person stabbed someone in the restaurant’s employee parking lot last month.
Even worse, what the homeless man said to Brown that evening is actually right—currently, this is Austin, thanks in large part to city officials.
To understand, rewind the clocks to June of last year, when the Austin City Council made it legal for vagrants to camp, sit, and lie down in public spaces across the city. Almost overnight, Austinites saw their streets, sidewalks, and highways littered with campsites, trash, and tent cities.
The council’s decision sparked a wildfire of public contention, prompting a slew of law enforcement and elected officials to speak out against it, and over 88,000 citizens to sign a petition calling for the law’s reversal. Citizens also packed 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 directly next to apartments and elementary schools.
After four months of public outcry, safety risk, and council inaction—and a public warning from Gov. Greg Abbott regarding the citizens’ safety—the council finally met in October and changed their law, but they chose to reverse only parts of it.
In November, Abbott intervened, instructing state agencies to clean up encampments under highways and to direct homeless individuals to nonprofits for immediate help. Abbott also established a state campground near downtown, where homeless people could receive assistance.
Yet recently, a spate of incidents, assaults, and tragedies has reignited the community outrage.
Last week, a knife-wielding man believed to be homeless was chased down and arrested after yelling at young children on a church playground, threatening to kill them. Numerous citizens have been assaulted, including in January, when a homeless man fatally stabbed a restaurant manager in broad daylight. Also, several recent public fires have been started by homeless people.
The intensifying chaos across the city came into clearer focus this month when the Austin Police Department released new data from 2018-2019, confirming the city’s violent crime is indeed rising. According to the data, there is a 23 percent increase in homeless-to-homeless violent crime, and a 6 percent increase in homeless-to-nonhomeless violent crime.
On top of that, a new city study revealed more and more Austinites are concerned about the rising danger. Over 2,000 were asked if they feel safe walking alone downtown at night, and 55 percent said no—a 12 percent spike from last year’s survey. The number of people who feel unsafe downtown during the day also jumped by 10 percent.
“I think we have a pretty large homeless population here, and with them being able to camp anywhere, I could see how people would feel more uncomfortable with that, for sure,” said native Austinite Angela Tisdale. “It’s just changed a lot. You never know what might happen. Or sometimes, even my friends, we’ll get approached by strangers, and despite what they may or may not want from us, every time it’s a little bit nerve-wracking.”
“Every single week we see something,” said local business owner Conrad Bouffard, who recently announced his Round Rock Honey shop will be leaving the downtown SFC Farmers’ Market.
“Unpredictable and unsafe behavior by vagrants and mentally ill individuals at the market has created an unsafe environment for our workers,” Bouffard said in a statement.
“It’s almost getting to a boiling point,” Brown said, adding that nearly every night he leaves Vince Young Steakhouse, he has to call the cops to remove people from the parking lot. “Our biggest thing is this isn’t safe for anybody, and that includes the homeless population.”
The steakhouse tweeted Sunday that Austin Mayor Steve Adler and the rest of the city council “do not care about us. Took a stabbing in our parking lot to get an aide of [Council Member] @kathietovo to call back. I guess @kathietovo couldn’t find the time herself to call.”
Despite months of countless stories and citizens speaking out, the Austin City Council has so far refused to do anything else. Citizens have organized a petition campaign to remove Mayor Adler and five of the city council members from office, and Gov. Abbott has mobilized more state police in the city to protect from the council’s “lawlessness.”
“Businesses & residents are leaving downtown Austin, & others fear going there because of increases in attacks, feces, etc,” Abbott tweeted Sunday. “The response by city leaders: citizens & business are wrong & city leaders know better. It’s time to start listening to citizens.”