Adler, Council Prepare for Abbott's Siege on Homelessness

Texas gov. continues to hammer city leadership on its response to homelessness through misinformation and fearmongering

City workers clean up a homeless encampment on Research Blvd. near Burnet Road. (Photo by John Anderson)

Although the conversation at City Hall has been less focused on homelessness following the release of a draft revision to the Land Development Code on Friday, Oct. 4 (see "Austin's Land Use Debate Returns to the Spotlight"), Gov. Greg Abbott has continued to hammer city leadership on its response to the issue through misinformation and fearmongering. Since sending a letter last week basically threatening martial law in Austin if Mayor Steve Adler and the City Council don't do more to "clean up the streets" in Austin, Abbott has posted three tweets pressing the issue. In the most recent, tweeted out on Wednesday, Oct. 9, the Gov. posits the dangerous and absurd idea that Council's decision to ease restrictions on where individuals can sit, lie, or camp in public has allowed "the homeless to do whatever they want ..."

Following Abbott's letter, Adler held a City Hall press conference responding to the governor's threat. There, Adler let it be known that Abbott and his staff were welcome to attend the weekly team meetings with city staff and the local organizations actually doing the work to help people avoid, survive, or exit homelessness. As of Monday, Adler told the Chronicle, Abbott had not responded to the invitation; the offer will remain standing.

Council's decision to ease camping restrictions without having a more coherent and apparent response strategy in place is fair game for questioning, but it's clear that Abbott (following the lead of Republicans nationally, including the president) is looking to score political points with voters unsettled by the increased visibility of homelessness – and by all indications, that's what it is: an increase in visibility, not an increase in the number of people without homes – instead of working on meaningful solutions.

Meanwhile, Council voted unanimously at its meeting on Thursday, Oct. 3, to expand a jobs program for people experiencing homelessness. The Workforce First program, run in partnership with the Other Ones Foundation, pays individuals the city's minimum wage of $15/hour to clean up green spaces in South Austin. The $720,000 investment will allow the city to grow the program, launched one year ago, by hiring dozens more workers and by expanding into other parts of town.

Just a few hours after that vote, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley held a press conference explaining how his officers would continue to adapt to the ordinance changes approved in June. Under the new guidelines, Manley said, officers would not need to worry about measuring distances available for passage on a sidewalk. Instead, if a person needs to step off the sidewalk to avoid an obstruction in the public right of way, or if a person has to walk in a "zigzagging" fashion, police will be able to ask a person causing the obstruction to move. Individuals camping too close to a street, and thus at greater risk of being struck by a vehicle, will also be asked to move. The city will also begin to remove from encampments mattresses, chairs, and other furniture intended for indoor use, which can pose a public health risk as "breeding grounds" for bedbugs and lice.

Austin Police Chief Brian Manley (Photo by John Anderson)
“As the police chief charged with maintaining public safety, I have suggested that we put the old ordinances back in place while we work through a final solution.” – Brian Manley

Manley also said he has asked the mayor to reinstate the old ordinances while a long-term plan is solidified and implemented. "I know [that] doesn't necessarily meet the political will of our mayor and Council right now," Manley told reporters. "[But] as the police chief charged with maintaining public safety, I have suggested that we put the old ordinances back in place while we work through a final solution."

In response, Adler told us of many positive stories – "mostly from women" – that he's heard since the ordinances were changed. "People have thanked me," the mayor said, "because they've moved out of the woods and dark, isolated places and into public places, where they are now safer." Still, he acknowledged that some "tweaks" may need to be made to the ordinances "as we talk about sharing public spaces." But he stood firm on any kind of widespread prohibition of public camping, sitting, or lying: "Anything we do should not weaken the policy direction that was voted on in June. It's important for people to have places they can be other than alone in the woods, streams, or creeks."

Council doesn't meet this week, but will return on Thursday, Oct. 17, to take up a 67-Item agenda. Items of note include the potential issuance of bond dollars, not to exceed $15 million, for the purchase of an existing affordable housing project located at 9125 North Plaza. CMs will also consider directing $155,200 to Travis County to provide "advocacy services for victims and survivors of sexual assault"; possible action on the camping and no-sit/no-lie ordinances, and the creation of a (long-delayed) Rainey Street District Special Revenue Fund.

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Austin City Council, Austin Police Department, Travis County, Workforce First, The Other Ones Foundation, Greg Abbott, Steve Adler, Brian Manley, Rainey Street, housing bond, no sit / no lie, homelessness services, camping

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