AUSTIN—“The Mayor and City Council refuse to admit their mistake, so it is up to the citizens to fix their mess.”
On Monday, Austinite Matt Mackowiak stood alongside a coalition of organization leaders and concerned neighbors as they announced their new effort—nonprofit Save Austin Now—to restore order and safety to a city strung out on months of mayhem.
“We are proposing that our city go back to where it was in June, before Council Member Greg Casar pushed through the homeless camping ordinance without considering the risks posed to public safety, public health, tourism, and the image of Austin,” Mackowiak said.
The whole issue began last June, when the Austin City Council made the controversial decision to allow 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 nearly 90,000 citizens and counting 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.
“As a lifelong Democrat who has sheltered homeless individuals in my home, this issue is personal to me,” said Save Austin Now co-founder Cleo Petricek. “There is no partisan angle to wanting a safe neighborhood.”
The issue intensified in the fall as the city council continued to do nothing in response to months of citizen and law enforcement outcries. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott eventually got involved, first issuing a warning for the council to restore safety, then sending in state police to help protect the community as well as establishing a state campground near downtown, where homeless people could receive assistance.
Yet a recent flood of incidents, assaults, and tragedies has reignited the community’s outrage.
This month, a knife-wielding man believed to be homeless was chased down and arrested after yelling at young children on a church playground and threatening to kill them. Numerous citizens have been assaulted; in January, 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 to 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.
“Mayor [Steve] Adler has done nothing for the UT Austin students regarding safety,” said SafeHorns President Joell McNew, whose organization is also supporting the Save Austin Now effort. “This is impacting the quality of life not only for Austin, but for our students. We wish the City of Austin had agreed to the request of the UT police chief to exempt the UT campus from the repeal of the no-camping ordinance, but they refused.”
Citizens have organized a petition campaign to remove Mayor Adler and five of the city council members from office, and now, Save Austin Now seeks to entirely reverse the council’s June decision. Mackowiak, who is also chairman of the Travis County Republican Party, said their goal is to obtain 20,000 petition signatures by mid-July and put the decision to voters in November.
“The ballot language reinstates the ban on homeless camping citywide, restores the sit/lie ordinance to downtown and extends it to the UT campus and surrounding area, and bans panhandling at night citywide from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.,” Mackowiak said. “In the meantime, worthy public and private efforts will continue to increase housing, shelters, and encampments for homeless individuals in Austin.”
“The city’s tone-deaf and arrogant leadership has created hundreds of grassroots organizers since July 1,” added Petricek. “And now we are taking the concerns that our fellow Austinites have expressed and working to save our city.”