AUSTIN – Following reports of violence and trash causing public health hazards, Gov. Greg Abbott sent a letter to Mayor Steve Adler on Wednesday demanding he and the Austin City Council address the growing homelessness crisis by November 1, 2019.

  • Sets deadline of Nov. 1
  • Outlined several public health concerns
  • Will send state agencies if reforms not implemented

Abbott stated that if meaningful reforms are not implemented by the deadline, he will direct state agencies to address some of the issues outlined in the letter.

Gov. Abbott wrote, in part:

“As the Governor of Texas, I have the responsibility to protect the health and safety of all Texans, including Austin residents. Further inaction by you and the Austin City Council will leave me no choice other than to use the tools available to the State of Texas to ensure that people are protected from health and safety concerns caused by the Austin homeless policies. As a result, I will give you until November 1, 2019 to demonstrate consequential improvement in the Austin homelessness crisis and the danger it poses to the health and safety of the public. If meaningful reforms are not implemented by then, I will direct every applicable state agency to act to fulfill my responsibility to protect the health and safety of Texans in your jurisdiction.”

Mayor Adler responded to Gov. Abbott’s letter saying that is not simply a city challenge, but one that requires state and federal support. Adler said he welcomes some of the state health agencies to help Austin with addressing diseases, sanitation and health protection.

“The governor says he wants to see action by the 1st, I hope he starts seeing action by next week. I hope he’s more action every week and I hope that his office is part of those meetings, so that he can see firsthand what’s happening in hopes that the governor’s office would see opportunities to bring resources,” Adler said.  

The mayor said that despite the relaxed rules related to camping, the current ordinance still makes it illegal for people to urinate or defecate in public, to block someone’s ability to walk on a sidewalk, or confront others aggressively.

“Forcing people experiencing homelessness into the shadows, doesn’t help anybody, it only allows the homeless challenge to exacerbate. When Austin moves our most vulnerable Texans, to where we can’t see them, I pray that we have helped moved them into housing,” said Adler. 

In his letter, Gov. Abbott laid out several strategies the state can use to protect against threats to public safety and health including:

  • The Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) has broad and sweeping authority across the range of health and human services, including the authority to adopt rules in the areas of communicable disease, sanitation, and health protection.
  • The Department of State Health Services (DSHS) protects the health of all Texans through the prevention and control of disease and other public health risks using strategies authorized by the Texas Legislature. For example, in the event of a disease outbreak or reported infectious disease, DSHS has authority to conduct investigations and impose control measures applying to specific individuals, property, animals, and area quarantines. Due to a variety of factors, including lack of access to clean water, limited access to healthcare, and environmental and other conditions, the homeless are at a higher risk for contracting certain communicable diseases—including hepatitis B, hepatitis C, HIV, and tuberculosis. Among other things, homeless Texans are estimated to contract tuberculosis at a rate more than 70 times higher than the general population. 
  • The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) regulates the State’s water quality standards. Water quality could suffer if increased human defecation and other waste resulting from Austin’s homelessness ordinance caused elevated concentrations of E. coli in Austin creeks or watersheds. Additionally, in reviewing Austin’s stormwater management plan, TCEQ will insist on seeing a plan that addresses the effects of the crisis resulting from Austin’s homelessness ordinance. 
  • The Department of Public Safety (DPS) has authority to act statewide—including throughout Austin—to ensure the safety of state employees and those seeking services from the State on or around state-owned or state-leased property. DPS can also enforce the state law prohibiting criminal trespassing. If necessary, DPS will add troopers in Austin areas that pose greater threats. DPS also stands ready to increase security for state agencies that are forced to respond to the homelessness crisis. 
  • The Department of Transportation, among its powers to ensure the safety of Texas roads and those around or traveling on them, can remove property that may block roadways or endanger public safety.
  • The Office of the Attorney General has the authority to seek injunctive relief and civil penalties for violations of Texas statutes and rules requiring abatement of public health nuisances. The Attorney General also has broad legal authority under countless other statutes.