Austin, Texas, like many other major cities across the United States of America, has struggled with the issue of homelessness for years. The city has tried a number of different approaches; however, the problem has become a crisis in recent years. Some say the increase in homelessness was in part due to the lifting of the city’s camping ban in 2019.
In 2022, 4,611 people were counted as homeless in Austin and surrounding Travis County on a day in October. This is according to data gathered by The Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), a non-profit tasked with leading homelessness strategies in the county. This represents roughly 0.4% of the population in Travis County and is a slightly higher rate than in Austin’s twin city Phoenix (Maricopa County) where homeless people represent 0.2% of the population.
Compared with other cities nationally in the 2022 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, Austin’s homeless population is nowhere near Los Angeles, New York, or even Seattle. However, the report showed Austin had the 4th highest rate of un-sheltered families experiencing homelessness, and the 5th highest rate of un-sheltered, unaccompanied youth (compared to other major cities).
The Camping Ban in Austin
The city of Austin had a ban against camping on public property that included sitting or lying down in public spaces. In 2019, the Austin city council voted to decriminalize homelessness and lift the camping ban. This made it possible for people to sit or camp on any public street, except in front of pathways or city hall.
RSnake and Mackowiak, both Austin residents at the time, experienced the consequences of this policy change first-hand. “All of a sudden, the population just exploded overnight,” said RSnake.
Statistics agree the number of un-sheltered homeless people in Travis County did spike from 2019-2020.
According to Mackowiak, the ban caused several problems city-wide. “You have issues in our waterways, you have trash, you have needles, profound effects on public safety, public health, on our intersections, on our neighborhoods, on the image of our city, on tourism, the list goes on and on and on.”
As a result, Mackowiak worked together with Cleo Petricek to found Save Austin Now, a non-partisan organization, to put pressure on the Austin city council to reinstate the camping ban.
They started petitions and collected signatures and were finally able to get the issue on a ballot in 2021. “It took us an enormous amount of effort to get on the ballot,” said Mackowiak.
Homelessness remains a central issue in Austin today. The number of homeless people increased in Travis County by 7.4% between 2019 and 2022. The population of Travis County grew 10% over the same period.
Even though the county is working to house un-sheltered people, there are still far more people sleeping on the street than in shelters or transitional housing.
Impact of Homelessness on the Community
Homelessness impacts the community as a whole. Many people fear that the growth of the homeless population will increase crime in a specific area. Some research has shown that the increased number of people sleeping on the streets does seem to have an impact on crime.
However, Mackowiak pointed out that unhoused people are also at a higher risk to be victims of crime. “They’re constantly at risk for physical violence, sexual violence, having their possessions stolen – all of these things.”, said Mackowiak.
Mackowiak discussed the continued repercussions of increased homelessness in Austin on small businesses. “Royal Blue grocery, which is a fairly progressive boutique grocery chain in downtown Austin, has changed their hours such that they’re not open after dark. They’ve had huge problems,” he said.
Police are responsible for enforcing any laws around loitering, or camping bans. As a result, police can frequently come into contact with people who are unhoused.
Police involvement is another contentious issue. Advocates to decriminalize homelessness point to statistics that say homeless people are 6.5 times more likely to be killed by police than anyone else. They also state that police are unequipped to deal with the complex mental health issues that underscore homelessness.
RSnake sympathized with the difficult position of police in these situations. They are usually the first ones called when someone has a problem with a homeless individual, they are expected to deal with sometimes dangerous situations, yet they don’t have much support from the city to enforce laws around homelessness. “It doesn’t seem like we’re giving them any tools to do the right thing for society,” he said.
Mackowiak believes law enforcement has an important role to play in enforcing public order. Targeted policing, for example, played an important role in making New York safe in the 1990s. Citing the Broken Windows theory, Mackowiak said that if the police don’t deal with small infractions, problems are likely to increase.
In Austin, the police budget was cut by millions of dollars in 2020. Even though the money was restored in 2021, staff shortages remain. “We don’t do practical policing anymore. Our traffic enforcement unit is shut down, or anti-gang unit is shut down, our lake patrol is shut down, park police are shut down, we doubled our all-time homicide record last year,” said Mackowiak. This makes it difficult to enforce laws around homelessness, or even petty crime.
Solutions to the Crisis
The problem is complex, and solutions are not easy. The best programs provide both shelter and support for mental health, addictions or other problems unhoused people may be facing.
Mackowiak discussed some programs in Texas that are leading the way.
Community First! Village run by Mobile Loaves and Fishes is a community of tiny homes in Austin. “Alan Graham with Mobile Loaves and Fishes does a fantastic mission-driven effort,” said Mackowiak. “Alan believes that homelessness is a lack of community first, more than anything else.”
The second organization named by Mackowiak is Haven for Hope in San Antonio, Texas. Haven for Hope provides transitional housing in which participants must go through a detox program in order to receive support. “It is absolutely remarkable,” said Mackowiak.
The availability of housing is another concern. A report (NEEDS AND GAPS) underscored the impact of rising rents in recent years and recommended partnerships between the government, landlords and developers to secure more affordable housing.
The city of Austin, Texas has been struggling with homelessness for years, and it has become a crisis in recent years. Despite the reinstating of the camping ban in 2021, homelessness remains a central issue in Austin today. The issue has a significant impact on the community, including concerns about crime and the impact on small businesses.
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