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Ballot measure on Austin's homeless camping ban sparks biblical debate

Ryan Autullo Luz Moreno-Lozano
Austin American-Statesman

The debate over Austin’s camping policies for people experiencing homelessness has erupted into a biblical battle.

On next Saturday's ballot, voters will decide whether to approve Proposition B, which would reinstate a city ordinance to make public camping a criminal offense in most areas around Austin.

In the runup to the election, local Democrats — among them Austin City Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison and recent congressional candidate Julie Oliver — have attempted to frame Matt Mackowiak, the local Republican leader pushing to reinstate the camping ban, as a hypocrite, suggesting he is ignoring passages in the Bible that they say underscore the need to protect the indigent.

More:Your guide to all 8 propositions on the Austin city election ballot

Mackowiak, who is Catholic, calls that suggestion "a phony line of attack" and says he hopes reinstating the ban will push Austin's leaders to take swifter action to increase the city’s housing options for homeless people.

A homeless man sleeps in a doorway April 16 at Central Presbyterian Church in Austin next to "Homeless Jesus," a bronze sculpture by Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz.

It's a fascinating turnabout: Texas Republicans, not Democrats, have traditionally been the party to mix faith with politics, objecting to legislation related to abortion and same-sex marriage, both of which they say are at odds with their Christian beliefs.

As Democrats have often criticized Republicans for citing the Bible on political issues, the stance by Harper-Madison and Oliver comes with its own political peril, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

"There's a risk," Rottinghaus said, "because religion goes both ways in politics."

Religion 'can be muddying'

Efforts to tie voters' decisions to biblical teachings began March 11 during a virtual panel hosted by the nonprofit ATXelerator. Early in the discussion, Harper-Madison highlighted passages in the New Testament in which Jesus Christ addressed the importance of caring for the poor.

She spoke of a "stubborn theological tradition" in society equating being poor to sinfulness.

Her comments were clearly directed at Mackowiak, the Travis County Republican Party chair, who co-founded the nonprofit-turned-political action committee Save Austin Now. After a failed effort last year, Save Austin Now in January submitted more than 20,000 signatures collected from voters to get the proposition on the ballot.

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"The idea we have a moral responsibility to help the poor — that's the central messaging of the Bible," said Austin City Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison, right.

If passed, Proposition B would create a criminal offense and a penalty not only for camping in a public space but for sitting or lying down on a public sidewalk or sleeping outdoors in or near the downtown area or the area around the University of Texas campus. It also would add restrictions on panhandling.

Early voting will end Tuesday. 

Proponents of the ban say the majority of Austin voters — Republicans and Democrats, Christians and non-Christians — are fed up with the rise in encampments spawned by the City Council decision to eliminate criminal penalties for camping two years ago.

Harper-Madison, who was homeless for a while after high school, said she attends two to three virtual church services on Sundays. She reflected on the passage in Mark in which Jesus tells a rich man to sell all of his possessions and give the money to the poor and he will have treasure in heaven.

"The idea we have a moral responsibility to help the poor — that's the central messaging of the Bible," Harper-Madison said in an interview.

Mackowiak, who identifies as a Christian in the Catholic church, said he believes reinstating the camping ban will help homeless people by removing them from dangerous areas where they are camping — and nudge Austin leaders such as Harper-Madison to take swifter action to increase the city’s housing options for the homeless population.

More:These voters are for and against Austin's homeless camping ban

His co-founder with Save Austin Now, Cleo Petricek, is a Democrat — a point the two of them have hammered in calling the camping ban a societal problem and not a partisan issue.

Mackowiak took part in a panel discussion recently that included Oliver, an Austin Democrat, who followed Harper-Madison's lead in linking biblical teachings to the city's homelessness crisis.

"I don't believe any reading of the Bible requires you to accept increasing the level of human misery in the way that we've witnessed in Austin over the past two years," Save Austin Now co-founder Matt Mackowiak said.

"I don't believe any reading of the Bible requires you to accept increasing the level of human misery in the way that we've witnessed in Austin over the past two years," Mackowiak said. "There's a difference in opinion on how you can best help the homeless. It has nothing to do whether you're a, quote, good Christian or not. It's a phony line of attack."

Rottinghaus, the University of Houston professor, said that although it's not unheard of for Democrats to link policy decisions to faith teachings, "Republicans have typically cornered that market."

Last month, for instance, Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton cited a Bible verse about the issue with serving more than one master. It came in a lawsuit challenging Austin's refusal to adhere to a statewide order to lift requirements for face coverings.

"Talking about religion in one dimension backfires in another dimension if you're in favor of helping the poor but in favor of abortion. The problem is religion can be as muddying as it is clarifying," Rottinghaus said.

To that end, Harper-Madison and the City Council in the past two budgets approved funding for abortion-related services. In doing so, they circumvented a state law that prohibits local governments from directly funding abortions by instead providing financial assistance to a woman for things she might need to get an abortion such as lodging, day care and fuel.

Harper-Madison said she uses many sources of information — not just Scripture — to guide her personal beliefs, which she said in turn often guide her political beliefs.

As for the council funding abortion services, Harper-Madison said she believes doing so aligned with those beliefs.

"The denomination I feel closest to — contemporary Christianity — acknowledges the life, the ability and responsibility of making decisions. And that's the mom. That's what leads me in that direction," she said.

Another City Council member, Mackenzie Kelly, dismisses the idea that voting in favor of Proposition B is antithetical to Christianity. Kelly, the only Republican on the council, also is the only council member who said she will vote for it. Alison Alter hasn't said how she'll vote.

"I think it's very political to utilize Scripture in order to further your agenda," said Kelly, who identifies as a Christian and attends a nondenominational church.

'Really in prayer'

The homeless camping issue has also proved challenging for local faith leaders.

It has long been front and center for Mark Hilbelink, pastor of Sunrise Community Church, which is near a large encampment in South Austin.

When homeless people began congregating under the U.S. 290 bridge almost six years ago, Hilbelink said members of the church faced a difficult question: Could they continue to call themselves Christians if they turned around and contacted police to report the camping?

Hilbelink leads a program at the church that connects 200 to 300 homeless people a day to things such as food, clothing, showers, mail and medical care. Since the program formed in 2015, Hilbelink said, it has helped house 544 people. 

“Prop B doesn't really provide answers. I don't think it helps the problem at all and probably hurts it, actually,” he said.

“We are having the wrong conversation. (The conversation) should be where can they go and not where can’t they go? If we put a camping ban in place, people still won’t have a place to go, and that doesn’t help anything.”

If the measure is approved by voters, unsheltered people in the city would have to vacate the encampments that many of them have been living in or face the possibility of a citation. Recently, the city announced plans to open a shelter for people living outdoors in four areas. That would begin in late May, and the shelter would be at a Rodeway Inn the city purchased in late 2019 to convert into a homeless shelter.

A longer-term housing plan calls for the city to work with a coalition of groups from the nonprofit and private sectors to acquire 3,000 additional units in the next three years.

The Rev. Joseph Parker Jr. of David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in East Austin said he has been praying about the camping issue and that his vote will probably come down to his level of confidence in that plan.

“I’m concerned about criminalizing those behaviors,” Parker said. “I’m really in prayer on where I am on that proposition."

Parker, a longtime leader in Austin's Black community, has made his position known on another prominent issue on the ballot: He's co-chair of the grassroots coalition Austin for All People, which opposes a proposition that would change the city's form of governance by increasing the mayor's authority over personnel and legislative matters and eliminating the city manager's position.

Alan Graham, the visionary of the social outreach ministry Mobile Loaves & Fishes, declined to share his thoughts on Proposition B. He said he was focused on the announcement of a 1,400-home expansion at the East Austin homeless residential compound Community First Village and was not in position to give input.

On Friday, more than 65 church and faith leaders announced in a letter that they would vote against Proposition B. They represent a diverse collection of denominations, including Baptists, Presbyterians and Muslims.

In a statement, the Rev. Abigail Parker Herrera of Tarrytown United Methodist Church said, "Poverty, addiction and mental illness are not crimes to be solved by police and the judiciary."

The Rev. Michael Coffey of First English Lutheran Church said the solution to the city's problem is more housing and not trying to "make persons without a home simply disappear from our sight just because we would rather not see them."

The group is planning a news conference for Monday.

Democrat Julie Oliver and supporter Craig Mitchell prepare to campaign in Austin last year during Oliver's unsuccessful bid for Congress. Oliver has cited Bible passages in opposing approval of Proposition B on Austin's May 1 ballot.

After Harper-Madison’s comments at the ATXelerator panel, Oliver, the former congressional candidate, appeared at an endorsement meeting with the American-Statesman’s editorial board April 5. Like Harper-Madison, Oliver was homeless for a time after high school.

Squaring off against Mackowiak and Petricek, Oliver referenced her faith in the post-Easter discussion.

“Many of us just concluded Holy Week, and for those of us in the Christian faith, our treatment of those who are hungry, homeless, poor, diseased and imprisoned can’t biblically be divorced from the Christian walk,” Oliver said.

In a conversation days later, Oliver, who volunteers with the Proposition B opposition group Homes Not Handcuffs, referenced a passage in Matthew in which Jesus talked of feeding those with nothing to eat or drink and clothing those who are naked. He said whatever is done for these people is done for him. 

Referencing that same passage, Zach Lambert, pastor at Restore Austin Church, said Christians are obligated to help the poor — but they might have different beliefs on how best to do it.

"I don't think we can shy away from the command Jesus has placed on us," he said.

He declined to say how he'd vote on Proposition B.