AUSTIN — After five months of raging public controversy, high safety risk, and local government neglect, the state has now taken action in Texas’ capital city to begin restoring security for the entire community.

On Monday, the Texas Department of Transportation began cleaning up homeless encampments under highways, a directive from Gov. Greg Abbott as a response to the action—and inaction—of Austin city officials.

“Our goal is to make Austin safer while also providing better alternatives for the homeless,” Abbott tweeted.

The whole issue traces back to June, when the Austin City Council made it legal for vagrants to camp, sit, and lie down in public spaces across the city (but notably, not outside city hall). After the decision, Austinites witnessed a predictable outbreak of campsites and tent cities that sprang up overnight on sidewalks, streets, and underneath highways.

The new law also posed a serious public health and safety risk, prompting over 45,000 citizens to sign a petition calling for its reversal. Citizens also packed numerous 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 right next to apartments and elementary schools.

The public backlash only intensified as the University of Texas’ police chief spoke out, writing Mayor Steve Adler an open letter urging him to reverse the decision for the sake of students’ security.

After a tumultuous summer of 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.

Following September’s council meeting, the problems only worsened. Mayor Adler posted a statement on Twitter dodging blame for the situation and telling the city manager to do something about the law; Adler even suggested ideas such as equipping police officers with tape measures or string to enforce a 4-foot clearance space for sidewalk campsites.

Soon after the mayor’s statements, several more prominent officials spoke out on the situation: Austin Police Chief Brian Manley; Gov. Greg Abbott; and U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, who represents much of downtown Austin, joined in the chorus calling for Adler to overturn the new homeless camping law.

Abbott even told the mayor in an open letter 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. On top of that, a citizen-led political action committee began efforts to kick out Mayor Adler and five of the city council members from office.

The city council met in October and finally made some changes to the law, but they chose to reverse only parts of it. Homeless individuals were now no longer allowed to camp on sidewalks but could still sit and lie down on them. The issue of camping under highways, on street medians, and in numerous other locations was also left unaddressed.

Now, Abbott has sent the state to begin protecting the community. According to TxDOT, they will clean up highway encampments weekly until further notice, and the governor’s office is working to direct homeless individuals to nonprofits for immediate help.

“San Francisco chose to tolerate homelessness & drug use,” Abbott tweeted. “It did so in the name of compassion for the homeless. It made the problems worse … No SF in TX.”

Jacob Asmussen

Jacob Asmussen is a Senior Journalist for Texas Scorecard. He attended the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor and in 2017 earned a double major in public relations and piano performance.


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