Gov. Abbott’s war on Austin’s homeless explained

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Governor Greg Abbott has given the city of Austin until Nov. 1 to reduce its homeless population. If “consequential improvement” is not seen by then, Abbot plans to use state resources to address the issue. 

Abbott hasn’t said exactly how he plans to deploy state resources to address homelessness, but homeless advocates worry that a potentially heavy-handed approach to homelessness will do more harm than good. 

Criminalization of homelessness “tend[s] to backfire and exacerbate the challenges this population faces,” said Sandra Guerra Thompson, Director of the Criminal Justice Institute at the University of Houston Law Center. 

Abbott’s threats come at a time when relations between the Austin municipal government and the state government are particularly strained. A large part of the tension comes from Austin’s ongoing attempts to create social welfare initiatives. 

As part of one such initiative, the Austin City Council voted to decriminalize homelessness by voting to reduce or eliminate the penalties for sitting, sleeping or camping in public places.

The changes were designed to prevent homeless people from getting stuck with a criminal record, something that might hinder their ability to transition into permanent housing later on.

Austin’s new homeless ordinance explained

Since the ordinances went into effect on July 1, Abbott has railed against them, tweeting that “if Austin – or any other Texas city – permits camping on city streets it will be yet another local ordinance the State of Texas will override.” 

Over the last few months, Abbott has been collecting what he calls ‘horror stories’ — anecdotes about aggressive panhandling, discarded needles, and public urination. 

He recently sent out a call on Twitter asking for citizens that witness homeless people engaging in bad behavior or conditions that could be dangerous to homeless people to tag Austin Mayor Steve Adler.  

There’s some speculation that Abbott may use the stories to justify state intervention under the guise of securing the health and safety of Austin’s homeless population. 

Quite a few homeless advocates believe Abbott’s move is politically motivated, rather than based on an interest in reducing homelessness in Austin. 

“This is now the approach they’re going to take for 2020 to try and scare people,” Chris Harris from the Homes Not Handcuffs Coalition said. “This time around it’s the issue of homelessness.” 

Possible right-wing scare tactics aside, homelessness remains a large problem in Texas. Like most states, Texas experiences a concentration of homelessness in large urban centers. 

However, some Texas cities are attempting to tackle the problem in unique ways. Houston has managed to decrease its homeless population by 54 percent since 2011. 

Solutions from other cities 

A large portion of that decrease can be attributed to Houston’s comprehensive integration of smart technology and communication, which the city uses to coordinate activities between non-profits and government services.

The increased cooperation between service providers makes it easier to target resources to specific populations, including veterans, and get individuals into appropriate care or treatment programs. 

Although San Antonio has kept its anti-camping ordinances on the books, the city has been able to reduce its homeless population by about 6 percent in a year. 

Melody Woosely, director of the city’s Department of Human Services, told local TV station KVUE that homeless population reductions can be attributed to increased collaboration between governmental agencies and homeless service providers. 

“Collaboration among not just traditional homeless providers, but also with more untraditional partners – the police department, the business community, the mental health community…[there are] collaborations going on all over the community around homelessness, and that’s made a huge difference,” Woosely said.

In addition to increasing work between law enforcement and service providers, the city of San Antonio has also invested $10 million in infrastructure, including in the city’s new flagship shelter Haven for Hope

Not every Texas city has been able to adopt a proactive solution to homelessness. Dallas, currently experiencing explosive costs in Metroplex real estate, continues to have significant problems.

Since 2009, home prices in DFW have grown by 70 percent. The average price of a home in Dallas increased by 2.6 percent last year, and housing costs have left many North Texas residents unable to reach financial equilibrium.  

The city’s Office of Homeless Solutions estimates three-quarters of the city’s homeless population is on the street for economic reasons, with the inability to find affordable housing as a primary driver. 

Although there is no single, magic bullet solution to homelessness — Texas cities are exploring multiple ways to address the problems at the local level.

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