One of the most noticeable features of the downtown Austin cityscape has been the city’s ever-increasing homeless population. Especially as of late, the number of homeless people within the Austin metropolitan area is increasing dramatically. But are Austin’s lawmakers addressing the problem, or exacerbating it?

According to the City of Austin, the homeless population has increased by over 5 percent, to about 2,250 total individuals, in the last year alone. This is in addition to the 5 percent population increase from the previous year.

With the problem only getting worse, the city council has been updating its policies addressing homelessness. Most notable of these is the June 2019 ordinance loosening restrictions on where homeless people can camp, live, and loiter.

The new policy legalizes “public camping” anywhere in the city—save for parkland—as long as they do not immediately endanger the health or safety of others. This new decree has not come without its share of backlash, with many in the community divided over whether the policy is a humanitarian necessity or a threat to both personal safety and property.

The new Austin ordinance continues a trend seen nationwide, with other progressive cities like San Francisco already having implemented such policies. 

The policy in San Francisco, which, like Austin, eased restrictions on where and how homeless people could camp on public property, has been shown to have done little more than increase the already unhealthy homeless population in the city. As a result, San Francisco now owns a homeless crisis that the current infrastructure cannot handle—one that will cost an estimated $12.7 billion to address.

Controversy over the Austin policy is exacerbated by misleading language regarding whether the homeless could camp on private property as well as public property. The law states that while private land is still off limits, the homeless are, in fact, permitted to camp in adjacent areas. This proximity has caused many Austinites to express concern over a potential violation of their property rights. 

The complaints from members of the Austin community have extended into the political realm, too. Individuals like Travis County Republican Party Chair Mack Mackowiak and even Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted their dissenting opinion of the policy, citing threats to public safety and calling for commonsense solutions. 

A look at both the Austin ordinance and the similar law already implemented in San Francisco demonstrates how “solutions” like easing camping restrictions do little more than kick the can down the road without actually addressing the root causes of the homelessness issue.

Many attribute the increase in Austin’s homeless population to the increasing cost of living, brought about by unaffordable housing prices, property restrictions, higher taxes, and strict zoning laws.

These impositions have dubbed Austin the most expensive city in the state—for cost of living and otherwise. Ironically, many of these local government mandates, taxes, and regulations are created by the very same progressive city council claiming to provide solutions for Austin’s homeless. 

Overbearing regulations imposed by local government appear to be the source of the homeless issue and continue to remain unresolved by the city’s new ordinance.

Perhaps Austin can learn from other cities who have solved their homeless problem, like Bergen, New Jersey and Abilene, Texas, who have both used policies promoting private sector aid and increasing accessibility in the housing, construction, and property spheres to virtually end the homeless crisis in their municipalities. 

And maybe the Texas Legislature, having already expressed concern over Austin’s homeless problem, can begin addressing the issue by actively fighting the heavy government restrictions placed on property and individuals in Austin by their local officials, thus lowering the cost of living.

The new Austin ordinance failing to provide a tangible solution to the city’s homeless problem serves as another example of progressives’ inclination for platitudes and the optics of humanitarianism, while ignoring the true root of the problem—their own beloved big government ideology.

Sam Samson

Sam Samson is a third-year Government Honors major at the University of Texas and is an officer at UT's Young Conservatives of Texas. His political experience includes serving as both a staffer in the office of Senator Ted Cruz and as a member of two leadership missions to Israel. Besides being an overt Traditional Catholic, he loves friends and family, golfing, playing piano, debating hot takes, and is an avid world traveller, having visited 26 countries.