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Austin's homeless camping debate also playing out in Texas Legislature

Ryan Autullo
Austin American-Statesman

As Austin voters address the city's controversial homeless camping policies, a parallel debate is playing out at the Texas Legislature that could render the outcome largely moot.

Directed primarily at Austin's growing homelessness problem, companion bills from Republicans in the House and the Senate would ban public camping statewide and penalize any jurisdiction that lets it happen.

HB 1925, from Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Keller, appeared primed to clear a significant hurdle Monday before hitting a snag. After thwarting a number of Democratic attempts to soften the language, an undisclosed issue prompted Capriglione to cancel a scheduled vote and recommit the bill to the State Affairs Committee.

Bernard Garcia Villanueva sits at his makeshift shelter just a few feet away from a house on San Marcos Street in Austin on Monday.

A staffer in his office said the issue was related to the bill's witness list. The staffer said she did not know more and was unsure when the committee might convene to correct it.

Capriglione did not immediately respond to a text message from the American-Statesman seeking comment.

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The activity came on the eighth day of early voting in Austin, where voters are weighing whether to approve Proposition B, which would reinstate local criminal penalties for public camping that the Austin City Council canceled two years ago.

As of Sunday, about 8% of registered voters (60,000) had submitted a ballot in person or through the mail. Tuesday is the final day of early voting. Voters can also submit a ballot on election day Saturday.

Those in favor of reinstating the ban under Proposition B say it will eliminate the growing number of tent encampments in high-traffic areas by forcing unsheltered residents to find somewhere else to stay. They say a ban is needed for safety, as well as to maintain Austin's reputation as an attractive tourism destination. Opponents say ticketing people on the basis that they cannot afford housing is cruel. They argue that it leads to jailing — an expense footed by taxpayers — and makes it harder to forge a path out of homelessness. 

If successful, the ban would go into effect after results are canvassed, which would be within days of the election.

But should it fail, the happenings at the Legislature take on even greater importance.

Capriglione's bill, which would make camping on public land a Class C misdemeanor, also prohibits a local government entity from adopting a policy of not enforcing the ban. Any entity found in violation would be penalized financially by not receiving state grant funds for the state fiscal year after the year in which a final judicial determination is made.

A homeless camp lines East Cesar Chavez Street in Austin on Monday.

As laid out in his bill, intent can be established through evidence of cooking, making a fire, storing personal belongings for an extended period, digging or sleeping.

Monday's action on the House bill included votes on a number of potential amendments.

Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, pushed through an amendment that would allow people arrested for camping to later retrieve their abandoned property. Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, also had success with an amendment that would let an officer connect a person to shelter before issuing a citation.

But on balance, Democrats did little to water down Capriglione's bill. Their failed amendments included lowering the maximum fine to $5, not issuing a warrant for failing to appear in court, and including language that would make it legal to set up a "semi-permanent structure," such as a tent while waiting overnight to buy concert tickets or to meet Santa.

More:Goals out of Austin's homelessness 'summit' include 3,000 housing units, millions in spending

The companion Senate Bill 987, is lagging behind the House bill, having been pending in committee for two weeks now.

Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, wrote the bill. She said Monday she will decide whether to adopt the House bill — if it is approved — or proceed with her own.

"I will thoroughly review the final version of the bill that passes the House," she said in a statement. "I am committed to moving the best version of the bill possible in order to prevent cities like Austin from putting the public and those experiencing homelessness in harm's way."

The statewide camping ban, if signed into law, would go into effect Sept. 1.