On Monday, the Senate Local Government Committee met to hear Senate Bill 987 by State Sen. Dawn Buckingham (R–Lakeway) to discuss whether homeless camping in public spaces should be legal in Texas.
The issue of homeless camping in public spaces has been widely debated and criticized for the past two years after the Democrat-run Austin City Council legalized it in 2019. Their decision sparked a swarm of new tent cities, a drastic surge in the homeless population, a more dangerous public environment for all citizens, and a wildfire of public backlash.
Austinites organized and successfully submitted a petition to city hall to force a public vote on the issue in May, but state lawmakers are considering enacting a similar policy for all of Texas. SB 987 would not only stop homeless camping in public spaces, but would prohibit local governments from adopting policies that prevent the enforcement of camping bans.
“These public spaces, such as sidewalks, trails, and parks, were never intended to be used for habitation or bathrooms. In turn, some cities have allowed the public spaces to become venues for drug addiction and human trafficking,” Sen. Buckingham stated.
Time has shown that some cities can no longer effectively handle the growing issue of homelessness without intervention from the state. The current system is not safe or working for anyone—not for those experiencing homelessness; not for the public living, working, or visiting downtown; and not for the businesses seeking to relocate here.
“This is not a partisan issue, it is a public safety issue,” Buckingham concluded.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler came out in opposition of SB 987, saying, “Senate Bill 987’s camping ban doesn’t do anything to get people out of tents and off our streets. All SB 987 does is impose possible jail and fines for those without homes. At best, it will force those without shelter to hide, and that’s even less safe.”
SB 987 is a companion to House Bill 1925 by State Rep. Giovanni Capriglione (R–Southlake) and is similar to Austin’s Proposition B.
Gov. Greg Abbott released a statement in support of the bills addressing homeless camping in public spaces.
Allowing homeless encampments in public spaces poses a danger to our communities, including the homeless population. We cannot sit idly by and allow Texas families and businesses to suffer the economic and public health consequences that these encampments bring into our cities. These pieces of legislation provide a uniform policy for the entire state that will hold cities accountable to develop meaningful and compassionate long-term solutions to support those experiencing homelessness. I thank Sen. Buckingham and Rep. Capriglione for filing these important pieces of legislation and will work alongside the Legislature to sign these bills into law.
Back in January, Gov. Abbott said if Austin didn’t get the homeless camping issue under control, the state government would do it for them.
Judge Glock, a senior policy advisor with the Austin-based Cicero Institute, testified in support of Buckingham’s bill, listing multiple large cities—such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Denver—dealing with a similar problem.
“This is not a partisan issue,” Glock said. “In 2017, when the people of Denver chose to have a camping ban, they understood that, clearly, allowing anyone to camp wherever they want in public spaces is a recipe for disaster for the homeless and for the communities in which they live.”
Celeste Eggert, vice president and chief development officer of the San Antonio nonprofit Haven for Hope, testified in support, saying, “At Haven for Hope, we believe that people who experience homelessness deserve the right to live safely. And, quite frankly, the encampments are not safe. We often see drug use, drug dealing, sex trafficking, victimization of people in the encampments, and we have even been told by our chief of police in San Antonio to not enter the encampments without police presence when we go in.”
Eggert went on to say, “We frequently hear from people in the encampments, ‘Why would I come down to Haven for Hope? I get everything I want here, and I don’t have to follow rules. I can use, I can drink, I can do whatever I want.’ Mental health is a huge factor in these encampments. Many of the people that are in the encampments suffer from mental health and self-medicate through drugs and alcohol.”
Mackenzie Kelly, a councilwoman for the City of Austin, District 6, also testified in support of SB 987.
“Camping in public places has proven to be very dangerous not just for those who are shelter, but for those who are unsheltered, as well,” Kelly stated. “All I want to see is compassionate and safe solutions for these people experiencing homelessness, and I believe this bill will force entities, or cities, to make solutions that are actually attainable that will actually help these people get out of their situation. No more platitudes, no more hyperboles. It will force them to take action.”
Several families from different political backgrounds also came to testify in support of Buckingham’s bill, saying that they no longer have faith in the City of Austin and that homeless camping poses a major public health and safety risk to their children.
Citizen Cleo Patricia testified that “it is these communities that have shouldered most of the destruction to their neighborhoods, parks, schools, and playgrounds from unregulated homeless encampments … compared to the rich parts of Austin, like where Mayor Adler lives and the city council and city hall, where camping is both banned and enforced.”
Chris Harris with Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit public interest justice center, and others who opposed SB 987 stated that while they agreed with the sentiments of those who testified in support of the bill, they disagreed with many of the statistics brought up by witnesses. Those opposing primarily argued that they were “against the implementation of criminalization and the lack of solutions” present in the bill.
Linda Heightman, the executive director of Brown County Home Solutions, also came in opposition to Sen. Buckingham’s bill, stating that as a conservative opposing government overreach, “this bill removes local control, it penalizes innovation, [and] it prohibits communities from solving the problem themselves.”
The bill was left pending in committee.