Homelessness in Austin Becomes a Political Game
Abbott threatens Adler: "Clean up the streets," or else
While some on City Council continued to call this week for moving on from debate over the public camping and the no-sit/no-lie ordinances, others want to keep that conversation going. On Wednesday afternoon, as the Chronicle was going to press, Gov. Greg Abbott sent a threatening letter to Mayor Steve Adler demanding action on Austin's "homelessness policies" by Nov. 1, or the state would step in.
Abbott's letter lists a number of state agencies that he says would have authority to take action within the city, including the Department of State Health Services, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Department of Public Safety, and the Office of the Attorney General. It's unclear exactly what actions Abbott would direct these agencies to take to "clean up the streets," but the letter's authoritarian tone suggests they would not be humane or in the best interests of those experiencing homelessness: "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."
Adler responded to Abbott at a City Hall press conference Wednesday afternoon without engaging with the governor's combative rhetoric or announcing any proposed changes to the ordinances that drew Abbott's ire. "I choose to read this letter as an offer of assistance," Adler told reporters. "This is not a city challenge, it is a statewide challenge." The mayor noted he has seen no indication that the number of people experiencing homelessness has increased in Austin, only that some have become more visible as they feel safer in public spaces. The mayor said he would welcome aid from the state in reducing homelessness and that Abbott was welcome to send a staffer to join the weekly meetings led by the city's new homeless strategy officer, Lori Pampilo Harris. As for the Nov. 1 deadline, Adler said, "my hope is the governor starts seeing action by next week."
The Downtown Austin Alliance, in a separate move, issued a statement in support of the city of Boise's appeal of a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that found restrictions on public camping in the Idaho state capital unconstitutional. The court held that punishing a person for involuntary behaviors, such as sleeping outside, was a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, if the number of persons living without homes or shelter in a community is greater than the number of available shelter beds in that community – as is the case in Austin.
That ruling out of 9CA in Martin v. City of Boise informed the thinking of Council members and advocates here who pushed to have Austin's restrictions eased. The petition from Boise seeks to have the U.S. Supreme Court take up the case; two amicus briefs filed in support of that motion argue that the 9CA interpretation of the Eighth Amendment is burdensome to states and a threat to city downtowns. A cohort of states including Texas claims that the ruling inhibits their ability to enforce other laws besides those that previously banned public camping, sitting, or lying – such as those against camping at rest areas and along highways, as well as laws against public urination and theft of food – if those actions are found in court to be "biologically compelled."
The state's brief goes further: The ruling "calls into question such fundamental prohibitions as laws imposing criminal penalties for murder, child sex abuse, child pornography, domestic violence, stalking, drug use, and rape for any criminal defendant who argues that his conduct was the product of a compulsion." In Austin, police officials and city leaders have reiterated again and again that such actions remain illegal, and officers are still capable of enforcing those prohibitions against anyone regardless of housing status.
The second filing, from the International Downtown Association, contains a section on Austin that makes several claims about the negative impact our ordinance changes have had on Downtown businesses, residents, and visitors – without providing a single citation for those claims. The section echoes the unfounded fearmongering spewed by GOP politicos here, rather than the more reasonable approach the DAA has taken locally in its own quest to humanely help the concentration of people experiencing homelessness Downtown while keeping in mind the interests of the business community. Still, DAA president and CEO Dewitt Peart issued a statement embracing both briefs, urging city leadership to clarify enforcement of the ordinances for law enforcement and the public at large. "Right now, law enforcement is hamstrung, and there is confusion across the community around why the ordinances were changed and what the police can and cannot do to address the significant increases in public disorder," the statement reads.
Chris Harris of the Homes Not Handcuffs group that led the effort to decriminalize homelessness in Austin points out that our ordinances were revised for reasons beyond their constitutionality – notably, their ineffectiveness as tools for reducing homelessness. "Ticketing and arresting poor people for unavoidable acts like sitting, sleeping and asking for help was discriminatory, impractical and wrong," Harris wrote in a statement addressing the briefs filed on behalf of Boise. The coalition is urging Austin's leaders to stand firm, whatever SCOTUS decides.
While argument over the ordinances continues, two new leaders are keeping their heads down and getting to the work of actually solving the problem. Pampilo Harris started on Sept. 9, and Matthew Mollica took over as executive director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition in August after Ann Howard stepped down to run for Travis County commissioner. Pampilo Harris and Mollica are both analyzing the current state of Austin's homelessness response system; neither is focused on the ordinances. In an interview on Sept. 26, Pampilo Harris told the Chronicle she is more concerned with understanding the population of people experiencing homelessness in Austin so she can identify which programs and services should be prioritized. Mollica told us on Tuesday, Oct. 1, that ECHO feels the ordinance changes represent the "baseline of empathy" that should be extended to people who have no choice but to sleep on the streets, and that his goal is to advocate for the services that will create better choices for those people.
Both agreed that their work is complementary, as Pampilo Harris' analysis informs not only how programs should be funded, but which programs are effective. "I'll be looking at who is coming into our system, where they are coming from, was there a way that we could have prevented them from becoming homeless, and how long they are staying in the system," Pampilo Harris said. With that information in hand, she can recommend investments the city should make – at this stage, mostly to create housing – and how partners like ECHO can help. Mollica said the biggest need within the city right now is for low-barrier, permanent supportive housing to provide stability to those working to exit homelessness.
But, Mollica said, efforts to end homelessness should also provide each of those individuals with the agency to create their own path toward housing stability, with the help of housing, health care, job training, and other resources. "People don't get to tell me where I can live or how to live my life inside my home," Mollica told us. "The idea that people experiencing homelessness don't have the same desire of control over their life is wrong, and our systems will be more effective if we give them that control."