AUSTIN — Amid a contentious public safety disaster in Texas’ capital, a growing chorus of citizens are calling for city officials to reveal what they’ve done with hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars for the homelessness crisis.
“It’s time they show where they’ve been spending the money,” said Matt Mackowiak, co-founder of the citizen group Save Austin Now.
The immediate issue is the Democrat-run Austin City Council could, as soon as Thursday, vote to spend a majority of the city’s federal pandemic relief funds—$84 million, or 58 percent of Austin’s entire relief cash pool—toward homelessness services over the next two years.
The overall issue is the council has already spent hundreds of millions on the problem over the past few years with little results.
“Taxpayers deserve to know how $160 million were spent over fiscal years 2018-2020 and what we have to show for it. Because it appears the money has been widely spent on waste, with precious little new homeless housing being made available despite massive investment,” said Mackowiak.
Furthermore, the council recently hatched a plan to spend a whopping $515 million over the next three years on just 3,000 homeless housing units—a cost of $176,000 per person.
Along with the exorbitant spending, the council instigated problems on the streets by repealing the city’s longstanding public camping rules in 2019, allowing unrestrained homeless squatting in nearly all public spaces (except city hall, notably).
The decision sparked a swarm of new tent cities along sidewalks and neighborhoods, a drastic increase in the city’s homeless population, a more dangerous public environment (including record surges of violent crime), and a wildfire of public backlash.
That issue culminated a month ago, when Austinites of all political parties, after a long grassroots petition campaign, voted overwhelmingly to restore the city’s original public camping rules.
Now, as the council wants to spend hundreds of millions more on a problem they provoked, citizens are demanding answers.
“Austinites aren’t getting what they voted for; they’re getting the runaround; and getting angrier and more fired up to oust all existing city leadership as a result,” tweeted Save Austin Now, the driver of the petition campaign.
The group’s co-founder, Mackowiak, added separately that instead of following proven successful models, such as Austin’s nonprofit Community First micro-home village or San Antonio’s Haven for Hope, city officials spent $161 million in the past three years on their own homelessness plan to only provide approximately 200 new beds annually, costing roughly $13,000 per person per year.
Austin Councilmember Mackenzie Kelly, who was recently elected primarily because of the homelessness debacle, is now calling for an independent audit of city officials’ total homelessness spending over the last five years.
“I’ve spoken with community members and stakeholders, and they, like I do, remain skeptical on the spending without a better understanding of how effective previous spending has been,” Kelly said.
“[The council] had no actual plan, they just threw your money at the problem and hoped it would go away,” wrote citizen Matt Braunschweig.
“The only people getting help from this money are the same old nonprofits that are enabling the behavior,” commented another. “And if the homeless problem disappears, these people’s income stream disappears along with it.”
Three years ago, the council had the opportunity to bring in an independent audit team to review and streamline the city’s massive $4 billion budget, but they adamantly opposed the idea. Austin voters also rejected the audit proposal.
Now, with Councilmember Kelly’s call, they could have the chance to peel back the curtain on at least the homeless spending.
“Our homeless need actual solutions,” tweeted Mackowiak, “not more waste and corruption.”