“Safety will improve soon,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced to Austinites Tuesday. “Today is a day of action.”
Public notices went up across Austin yesterday that beginning next week, the Texas Department of Transportation will begin cleaning up homeless encampments underneath highways throughout the city and will direct individuals to nonprofits for immediate help. Abbott issued the action as a response to the city’s recent controversial homeless law, which has caused a wildfire of contention in the community.
The story began in 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 immediately witnessed a predictable outbreak of campsites and tent cities on sidewalks, streets, and underneath highways.
The new law also caused a public health and safety risk, prompting over 41,000 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 three months 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, even suggesting 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.
The city council met in October and finally made 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, starting Monday, the state is stepping in.
“Gov. Abbott has been clear that unless the City of Austin demonstrated improvements to protect public health and safety, the state of Texas would step in to address this crisis,” said Abbott spokesman John Wittman, “With today’s notice from TxDOT, the Governor is following through on his promise.”
In addition to directing homeless individuals to nonprofits such as the Salvation Army, Integral Care, and Front Steps, “The Office of the Governor is working with a coalition consisting of private sector and faith-based organizations on longer-term solutions,” said Wittman.