Listen to Austin 360 Radio

May ballot will give Austin voters the option to bring back homeless camping ban

Ryan Autullo
Austin American-Statesman
Glenn Cude, who said he has been homeless for 20 years, walks past a pile of trash Thursday at a homeless camp on Barton Springs Road near South Lamar Boulevard.

Austin voters will get the chance to reinstate the city's homeless camping ban – or leave things the way they are – after the city certified a petition to put the choice on the ballot in May.

On Thursday, a city spokesman confirmed that a petition by the nonprofit group Save Austin Now was successful, meaning at least 20,000 of the signatures the group submitted last month were verified as coming from registered Austin voters.

Thursday's announcement was not a surprise; Save Austin Now said in January it had submitted 27,000 signatures and verified all but about 3,000 before turning them in.

Now, the Austin City Council has until Feb. 12 to decide whether to adopt the ordinance changes in the petition or call an election for May 1. The council is not expected to adopt the changes, meaning the decision will be up to Austin voters. A special called council meeting is set for next Tuesday to discuss these issues.

The election would come nearly two years after the City Council voted in June 2019 to repeal a 23-year-old ordinance that made it illegal to sleep in public areas. The spirit of the decision was to end citations and other legal consequences for unsheltered people on the basis they could not afford traditional housing and had to sleep outside. But some residents have criticized the change, upset by the increase in tent encampments throughout town as the city struggled to find permanent housing for the unsheltered community.

Voters also will get the chance to restore the sit/lie ordinance in downtown – which would ban sitting or lying down in most public spaces – and extend it to the University of Texas campus and surrounding area. It also would ban panhandling from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

This was the second time Save Austin Now circulated a petition to reinstate the bans. The first attempt failed last year when the nonprofit came less than 1,000 votes shy of reaching the 20,000-signature minimum the city requires. Save Austin Now filed a lawsuit questioning the count. The matter is pending in a Travis County state District Court.

Also Thursday, Save Austin Now said it has formed a political action committee to start raising money to push for reinstating the ban. The PAC's treasurer is Logan Cheney, who is employed by Save Austin Now co-founder Matt Mackowiak's Potomac Strategy Group.

“Today’s news is a welcome development for Austinites who only want to live in a safe and clean city,” Mackowiak said in a written statement. “Our army of volunteers and supporters worked incredibly hard to collect more than 26,000 validated signed petitions in just 50 days during the holidays. Now Austinites can choose to fix this mess created by (Council Member) Greg Casar and (Mayor) Steve Adler. The mayor and the City Council will never fix it. In fact, they are unconscionably making it worse. We must save our city on May 1.”

Casar, who was behind the repeal of the camping ban two years ago, encouraged voters to reject the attempt to reinstate it. Adler has said it would be "inhumane" to reinstate the ban.

“We must end homelessness by getting people off the street with housing, services, and jobs,” Casar said in a written statement. “No one will be housed by this misguided effort, but plenty of people will be jailed by it. A majority of Austinites want to see people housed, not persecuted, and we need to push back on this cruel strategy at the ballot box in May.”

A precise number of valid petitions submitted by Save Austin Now is unknown. The clerk reviewed a random sample, authorized by state law, and estimated 26,103 were valid.