On Thursday, lawmakers in Austin, Texas, will once again bring to a vote a controversial ordinance: decriminalizing homelessness. As in other major cities around the country, lawmakers in Austin are conflicted over how to best handle the rise in homelessness, with some proposals igniting heated debates over the most effective way to tackle the issue.
In June, the Austin City Council voted to effectively decriminalize camping, sleeping, and panhandling in public spaces. Before the ordinance was implemented, homeless people in the city had been subject to fines, displacement, and jail time. The ordinance was intended to institute a more compassionate approach to the homeless crisis, but conservative critics argue that since it went into effect, the problem has grown substantially, with the city’s homeless population now making themselves comfortable on the streets without fear of repercussions.
Supporters of decriminalizing homelessness say the ordinance has been widely misunderstood by critics and conservative media.
“The biggest misunderstanding people have is that that illegal activities have somehow been authorized by the City Council,” said Chris Harris, an activist with Homes Not Handcuffs. “There are some who believe that assault, public urination, and public defecation are now being legalized. It’s absurd. The only thing that was made legal was sitting, lying down, and camping—and camping is only allowed in certain areas.”
Texas lawmakers have been urging Austin city officials to exercise caution, pointing to progressive cities like San Francisco as an example of what can happen if the homeless are given free rein in public spaces. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has been an outspoken opponent of the ordinance, and recently took to Twitter to condemn the new policy as “reckless.” In early October, his office sent out a press release criticizing the city’s practices, declaring the policy a safety hazard, and threatening to have the state intervene if he doesn’t notice a major improvement in the homeless problem. Abbott stressed that if there isn’t noticeable progress by Nov. 1, he will call in the Health and Human Services Commission and troopers from the Texas Department of Public Safety.
City officials are expected to vote this Thursday to amend the ordinance and clarify some of the terms. Some members now want the ordinance to include specifics on where camping is banned and when to call in social services to deal with the homeless population. But even with public pressure and a strict deadline from the governor, local organizations have pledged to continue working just as hard to combat the problem.
“We have already been working with many partners to increase our response to the needs in our city—existing and emerging,” said Amy Price, director of development and communications at Front Steps, an Austin-based organization that helps provide resources to those in need. “It does not feel like a crackdown. The work is always underway and always improving as we secure more data to refine our work and resources to expand our reach.”
Activists are planning to show up and vocalize their support for the ordinance at Thursday’s meeting.
“Our ideal scenario is that the city council holds firm on legalizing homelessness,” Harris said. “Criminalizing homelessness gives people arrest records and warrants, which actually makes it harder for people to stop being homeless. These things prevent people from getting applications, applying for jobs, and getting housing.”
Proponents of the new law are asking people to call Mayor Steve Adler and encourage him not to fold under pressure from state officials. Click here to contact Adler’s office.