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Adler at SXSW: Expect 'a close vote' on Austin homeless camping measure

Ryan Autullo
Austin American-Statesman

The Austin City Council's decision two years ago to decriminalize camping in many public spaces stoked a political firestorm unlike any he's ever seen in the city, Mayor Steve Adler said Tuesday during a South by Southwest panel discussion.

"We had the eruption of the largest political issue that I can remember in this city in the last 50 years, and we're in a race to see what we can do," Adler said in a virtual prerecorded setting with San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria.

Austinites will get to vote soon on whether to reinstate the camping ban, with the issue now on the city's May 1 ballot. Adler made no predictions about whether voters will reinstate the ban or let the current ordinance stand.

"It will be a close vote," he said.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler took part in the South by Southwest panel "Taking it to the Streets: Homelessness in Cities."

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Adler's comments came as part of a panel titled "Taking it to the Streets: Homelessness in Cities." The nearly hourlong session was moderated by San Francisco-based reporter Sarah Holder and included homelessness consultant Matthew Doherty as well as the two mayors.

The inclusion of Adler was a no-brainer given the furor over Austin's homelessness crisis and the blame that tends to be assigned to him for the increase in tent encampments and the pace of the city's attempts to house its unsheltered residents.

Save Austin Now, the nonprofit that collected more than 20,000 voter signatures to put the camping ban on the May ballot, is co-led by local Republican party leader Matt Mackowiak, a critic of Adler who has framed the mayor as the poster child for the city's homelessness problem.

Earlier this month, a Republican state representative from East Texas filed a bill mocking Adler and his handling of the crisis. The bill from Rep. Bryan Slaton, R-Royse City, would rename a stretch of Interstate 35 the Steve Adler Public Restroom Highway.  

And this week, three Republican state senators — Dawn Buckingham of Lakeway, Paul Bettencourt of Harris County and Charles Schwertner of Georgetown — filed a bill to ban public camping in the state. Local jurisdictions that disregard the ban would be denied state grant funds. A companion bill was filed in the House by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake.

At Tuesday's discussion, Adler called for an end to politicizing the issue. 

"The challenge for us is going to be to do this in a way that does not immediately become partisan and political, but the good nature of people who want to do better for the least fortunate among us," he said. "Because in many respects it's a nonpartisan issue."

This week, Adler told the American-Statesman he will vote against reinstating the ban and said he believes funding is now available to acquire enough housing to address the city's homelessness problem.

Regardless of the outcome of the May 1 vote, Adler said the city's work will continue.

 "If the vote wins, or the vote loses, we don't increase or decrease anybody. The number of people who are experiencing homelessness — and the action that we need to take —is still exactly the same," he said.