Austin, Texas — An effort is underway to bring back Austin’s camping ban, which largely impacts those experiencing homelessness. The “Save Austin Now” coalition will aim to gather the 20,000 signatures needed to put the issue up for a public vote this November.
Matt Mackowiak, co-founder of the group and chair of the Travis County Republican Party, said their petition ordinance would not only reinstate the citywide camping ban, it would also reinstate the ban on lying and sitting in downtown Austin and extend it around the University of Texas at Austin campus. The proposal would also limit panhandling overnight from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.
“People are not going to view this issue through a partisan lens because this is standard of living issue, this is a neighborhood issue. There is no political party view on whether your neighborhood should be safe or not,” Mackowiak said.
In June the Austin City Council voted to ease restrictions on camping, sitting, and lying down in public spaces, unless it endangers the health and safety of others or themselves. Activists have long argued the associated fines and warrants related to the ban create barriers for those trying to exit homelessness. City leaders have since turned their efforts on housing-focused strategies, such as purchasing motels to convert into shelters. Still, business owners and police union leaders joined some Austinites who live near encampments in criticizing the relaxed rules.
“We want the homeless community to be safe in Austin. The sad reality is right now it is not safe. That is absolutely clear. In the meantime, public safety, public health, and tourism are being drastically negatively affected because of this policy,” Mackowiak said.
Members of the coalition point to the state-sanctioned site for encampments in East Austin, on U.S. 183, just south of Montopolis Drive, as a place where people living without a home can go. Mackowiak called the site “encouraging.” There are more than 100 people living there. Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott offered to lease the five-acre site to the nonprofit ATX Helps, which the Austin Chamber of Commerce oversees.
Cori Roberts, 31, has been experiencing homelessness on and off since she was a child. For a few months now, she has been living at the state’s camping area, which she and her neighbors are calling Camp RATT. It stands for Responsible Adult Transition Town. Roberts said she believes the city’s previous ordinance on lying and sitting was too restrictive.
“People get tired of walking, because they have nowhere to go. The shelters are full. There’s not always a place for you go to sit down. You don’t always want to go sit a library,” she said.
Roberts, who said she is a member of Camp RATT’s governing council, said the site is where she feels safe. She knows firsthand how dangerous living on the streets can be and said she was recently attacked while living under a bridge. Whether or not the camping ban is reinstated, she said there needs to be more places, like Camp RATT, for people to go.
“For the homeless, run by the homeless, it’s a town for second chances,” Roberts said.
In order for the “Save Austin Now” ordinance to make it on the ballot, they must gather the signatures of five percent of qualified voters by July.
In a statement, Austin City Council member Greg Casar, of District 4, said:
“If the Travis County GOP Chair wants to spend a lot of money, time, and energy on a hurtful campaign that will do nothing to decrease our homeless population, that’s certainly his choice. But if Gov. Greg Abbott and the GOP Chair truly cared about public safety and public health in Austin, they would be working with the Austin City Council to provide housing and services to people experiencing homelessness. Unfortunately, it seems clear that they are committed to making matters worse.”