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With Prop B, Austin voters set to decide fate of city's homeless camping ban

Ryan Autullo
Austin American-Statesman

Austin voters are now getting their say at the ballot box on the city's controversial policies on homeless camping.

Proposition B takes center stage in Saturday's city election, giving residents the voice they did not have two years ago when the Austin City Council made it lawful to camp in most public spaces by canceling a 23-year-old ordinance that had prohibited it.

If approved, Proposition B could eliminate the growing number of tent encampments in high-traffic areas by reinstating criminal penalties and forcing the unsheltered residents to find somewhere else to stay. The city and partnering organizations have initiated short-term and long-term plans to increase the inventory of available shelter and housing options for people experiencing homelessness. For now, however, they do not have nearly enough to offer one to everyone in need.

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Joseph Denham, who has been homeless for a year, walks to his tent at a camp under U.S. 183 at Great Hills Trail on Friday. Austin voters are deciding whether to reinstate criminal penalties for camping in public.

The political action committees on both sides of the vote have been working as though they expect the race to come down to the wire. Save Austin Now — the nonprofit turned political action committee pushing for the reinstatement of the camping ban — had put up 29 billboards and raised $1.25 million through Wednesday.

The opposition group, Homes Not Handcuffs, had raised a fraction of that amount — $150,000 — and appears to be banking on support from younger Democrats who have gotten more engaged on political issues in recent years. Beto O'Rourke, the former congressman from El Paso who ignited that movement with his 2018 Senate campaign, sent out a tweet opposing Proposition B on Friday.

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In a sense, the vote has become a proxy for a number of controversial left-leaning initiatives Mayor Steve Adler and the City Council have pushed in recent years — such as police budget cuts, closing the police cadet training academy and holding on to strict pandemic restrictions even after Texas officials eased the limitations statewide.

This will be the first time those policies are held up in a citywide election. However, the frustration of residents was evident in last year's council district elections, when District 6 incumbent Jimmy Flannigan was defeated and District 10 incumbent Alison Alter escaped with a narrow runoff victory after a Republican-led effort to get her out of office.

If Proposition B is approved, penalties could also be assessed for sitting or lying down on a public sidewalk or sleeping outdoors in or near the downtown Austin area or the area around the University of Texas campus. The ordinance would also prohibit solicitation of money or other things of value at specific hours and locations.

Early voting is underway and will continue through Tuesday. 

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A man walks to a homeless camp in the median at East Koenig Lane on Friday.

The vote on the homeless camping ban comes six months after it nearly squeaked onto the ballot in November — and the delay could end up influencing the outcome.

Save Austin Now — co-founded by Travis County Republican Party leader Matt Mackowiak and Democrat Cleo Petricek — collected what it believed to be a sufficient number of voter signatures to get on the November ballot. But after tossing out flawed signatures such as duplicates and those from people not registered to vote, the city clerk determined that Save Austin Now had fallen short of the 20,000 valid signatures needed.

Starting over this year, Save Austin Now easily cleared that hurdle, submitting more than 26,000 signatures that the clerk determined to be valid.

The upshot is the proposition now appears in a midterm election, which typically draws a lower voter turnout and a more moderate- to right-leaning electorate in Austin than that which shows up during a presidential election.

Homeless people live in tents under a tree in Edward Rendon Sr. Park at Festival Beach on Friday.

Democrat political consultant Mark Littlefield said Save Austin Now got lucky by failing to get the proposition on the November ballot.

"It was going to be the biggest, it was going to be the youngest, it was going to be the most progressive — all things that don't bode well for recriminalizing (camping)," Littlefield said.

Through the first five days of early voting ending Friday, 44,922 people had submitted a ballot in person or through the mail. That's just 5.9% of all Austin registered voters.

In tweets, Council Members Greg Casar and Natasha Harper-Madison — who want to leave the camping rules the way they are — expressed concern that things were not going their way. They encouraged East Austin residents to get out and vote by displaying early voting numbers that they say shows Republicans and West Austin residents have cast the majority of ballots.

Photos:Lady Bird Lake trail at the center of Austin's homeless camping debate