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In rebuke of city's homelessness policies, Austin voters bring back homeless camping ban

Ryan Autullo
Austin American-Statesman

Austin residents finally got their say on the city's homelessness crisis, and their message was clear: They are opposed to people camping almost anywhere they please, and they have little faith in city leaders' ability to find housing for them.

In a stern rebuke to Mayor Steve Adler and the Austin City Council, voters opted to reinstate the citywide ban on public camping that the council had canceled in 2019.

The final tally on Proposition B was 57.7% in favor, 42.3% against. Final results came down late Saturday night, with one-fourth of the city's registered voters — about 156,000 people — submitting a ballot.

John N., who did not want to give his full name, removes water-soaked clothes and bedding from his tent Sunday after a few days of rain. John has been experiencing homelessness for six months and has been living on Riverside Drive. He said he has no place to go and can’t stay with his family because of the coronavirus.

Since the count is unofficial, the camping ban won't go into effect until after a canvassing of the results. That is expected to happen May 11. By approving the proposition, voters agreed to punish camping in public spaces with a fine as a Class C misdemeanor. A city spokesman said Sunday that the Austin Police Department is "evaluating options" for how to best implement the ban.

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"We will start with education and outreach, and will focus first on individuals living in situations that present higher health and safety risks," spokesman Andy Tate said. "Outreach will be ongoing as we continue to assess encampment sites and coordinate with our service providers."

After Austin voters approved Proposition B, an ordinance that reinstates a camping ban with criminal penalties, John N. said, “I'm going to have to go hide somewhere with a bag. How can they pass a law if we don’t know what’s going on?"

Meanwhile, efforts in the Texas House and Texas Senate to impose a statewide camping ban are moving forward. The authors of the bills — Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, and Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Keller — told the American-Statesman on Sunday that they are pleased with the results of Austin's election but still intend to move ahead with their legislation. Capriglione's bill was scheduled for a House floor vote last week but was delayed due to a seemingly minor issue involving the witness list. The vote has not been rescheduled.

"Even with the passage of Prop B, I fear that the city of Austin may delay and subvert the will of the people," Capriglione said. "So it is as critical as ever that we pass my statewide legislation."

In the end, Prop B was separated by about 21,000 votes — certainly not the narrow outcome that people on both sides had predicted at one time. Speaking at a South by Southwest panel on homelessness in March, Adler said he expected it to be a close vote.

But in the days leading up to election day, it became clear that Proposition B was likely to pass, as the electorate in the early voting period was generally older and more Republican than the city's population as a whole. In response, Adler and Council Member Greg Casar, one of the architects of the 2019 policy change, called for more Democrats to get out and vote.

Election results: See all election results here

But it would be a mistake to connect the outcome strictly to party politics, as Proposition B would have had no chance of succeeding in liberal Austin without generating significant Democratic support.

In a survey of 7,500 early voters, Save Austin Now — the political action committee behind the push for the ban — said 41% of Democrats responded that they had voted in favor of it. Of Republicans, 94% said they voted yes, and 86% of voters who are unaffiliated with either party also voted yes.

"This was a terrible night for Steve Adler and Greg Casar, but it was a positive night for the city of Austin," Matt Mackowiak, Save Austin Now's co-founder, said Saturday.

Under Proposition B, penalties will be assessed not only for camping but 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 will also prohibit solicitation of money or other things of value at specific hours and locations.

Without Mackowiak's involvement, the proposition probably wouldn't have made the ballot, let alone succeeded. A political underdog in Austin as the chair of the local Republican Party, Mackowiak — who worked alongside Save Austin Now co-founder Cleo Petricek, a Democrat — first attempted to put it in front of voters last November but fell less than 1,000 voter signatures shy of getting the petition certified. Trying again this year, he cleared that hurdle with ease, submitting more than 26,000 signatures the clerk deemed to be valid.

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Mackowiak's PAC shifted to fundraising, collecting $1.25 million through April 21 and using some of it to lease 29 billboards. The final fundraising total, which will be released in the coming days, will be about $1.75 million, Mackowiak said.

But the group faced resistance from the city, resulting in Mackowiak filing a lawsuit to challenge ballot language the City Council adopted that he said mischaracterized the intention of the proposition. The Texas Supreme Court delivered Mackowiak a partial victory.

In hopes of thwarting Mackowiak's efforts, city leaders announced two plans to get people off the streets and into housing.

The council's HEAL initiative — Homeless Encampment Assistance Link — is to connect people who are living unsheltered in four controversial areas to housing before making those four areas off limits to camping going forward. It came with explicit language that fines cannot be given for noncompliance, leading critics to question whether people would actually vacate their encampments. Also problematic: The plan does not call for any new housing, as the 50-bed shelter to be used is a Rodeway Inn the city purchased in 2019 to convert into a homeless shelter.

More recently, city officials held a homelessness summit with community leaders and activists to develop a longer-term housing plan. The summit, which was closed to the public, set a goal of adding 3,000 housing units in the next three years at a total cost of $250 million. The first 100 units are to be acquired by June.

But again, critics had questions: Why was the summit held now and not two or three years ago?

In a conversation with the American-Statesman on Saturday night, Adler said he felt strongly about the housing plans and said he did not believe the City Council made a mistake by repealing the camping ban in 2019.

The revised rules did maintain bans in some areas, including near private businesses and on parkland. However, the city during the COVID-19 pandemic has allowed people to camp on parkland — including the popular Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail — because of health guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that discouraged disrupting people's living situation.

“No, I don’t think so, because the ordinances that we had maintained laws of public safety and public health," Adler said, doubling down on the 2019 decision. "All the ordinance said is we’re not going to ticket or put people in jail that are not doing anything wrong. They’re just without a home. When that happens, it’s incumbent on us to get people out of tents. That’s tents everywhere — tents under overpasses, tents in woods and tents by our neighborhoods.”

Adler, who was part of the 9-2 council vote in favor of lifting the ban, found himself with fewer allies this time. Four council members who voted with him in 2019 —- Sabino "Pio" Renteria, Ann Kitchen, Leslie Pool and Paige Ellis — were absent on the campaign trail, resigned perhaps to the reality that voters were likely to reinstate the ban and it would be in their best political interests to stay silent.

That calculation followed the election defeat by City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan last year — a loss attributed in part to Flannigan's role in the city lifting the camping ban.

That left Adler aligned with just two other council members, Casar and Natasha Harper-Madison, the two most progressive members remaining on the governing body. The three held a damage control news conference last month to address a fire that spread from a downtown encampment and damaged the historic Buford Tower. The three were together again on election day for an anti-Proposition B rally at UT.

Their sales pitch wasn't easy. With encampments multiplying and the city's unsheltered population becoming more visible, they couldn't justify claiming that the situation had gotten better. Instead, they appealed to voters' hearts, suggesting it would be cruel to take criminal action against someone for being unable to afford a place to say. Harper-Madison referenced Bible passages about helping the poor. They also raised constitutional concerns, citing a federal court ruling that struck down a camping ordinance in Boise, Idaho.

To some, Saturday's outcome was a repudiation of the council not only for the camping ban but for a number of leftist policies adopted recently. Adler, at the South by Southwest panel, touched on that, saying he believed the ban was a proxy for other decisions, such as funding cuts to the Austin Police Department.

He backed off that line of thinking Saturday, suggesting the vote did not speak to a larger message.

"I don't think this was an election about progressive ideologies," he said. "I think it was an election about homelessness and about tents. I think people voted the way they thought would put us in the best position to end tenting in the community. I think that's what this election was about."

Mackowiak disagreed.

“Tonight is a clear message the city of Austin sent to City Hall that we’re not going to put up with insane policies that make life worse," he said. "The mayor, Greg Casar and a number of other members of the City Council decided to double down on a policy that was clearly failing.”

John N. and others could face criminal penalties if they try to camp in public spaces after the vote is canvassed, probably on May 11. "We will start with education and outreach, and will focus first on individuals living in situations that present higher health and safety risks," Austin police spokesman Andy Tate said.