GOP-led Effort Aims to "Save" Austin From the Unhoused
Initiative seeks to reinstate city's prior, more stringent camping ordinances
Travis County Republican Party Chair Matt Mackowiak announced on Monday a formalized effort to put changes to Austin's camping, sitting, and lying ordinances on the November 2020 ballot. In effect, the initiative aims to reinstate the city's prior rules, as well as restrictions on panhandling, that the City Council loosened in June.
Joined by the Austin Police Association and SafeHorns – two other groups who've vocally criticized Council easing restrictions on where people experiencing homelessness could sleep – at a Feb. 24 press conference, Mackowiak called the effort "bipartisan," but urban homelessness has become a wedge issue for Republicans from the county GOP to the Governor's Mansion to the White House. The Travis GOP coalition will need to collect signatures from 20,000 Austin voters by July to leave enough time to validate the petition and for Council to craft ballot language for a November election. The Travis County Democratic Party was quick to condemn the effort.
Although the petition drive is currently volunteer-driven, it's unlikely to stay that way. Recent ballot initiative campaigns have raised and spent more than $100,000 to collect signatures, and Mackowiak's newly formed nonprofit Save Austin Now is planning to fundraise for the effort. That money can't be used to pay directly for campaign expenditures, but Mackowiak did not rule out the possibility of launching a political action committee later. A similar strategy was used by local conservatives to place the (ultimately unsuccessful) Proposition K on the November 2018 ballot; donors to the nonprofit Austin Civic Fund were able to protect their identities from disclosure as that group donated in turn to a Yes on Prop K PAC.
Mackowiak insists the campaign "is not anti-homeless," but is rather aimed at ensuring Austin remains one of the safest big cities in America. Austin Police Department leadership, however, has repeatedly asserted that any increase in violent crime in the city cannot be linked to the relaxed camping ordinance.
At Council's work session on Feb. 18, APD Assistant Chief Joseph Chacon again reiterated this point. "When we're looking at our violent crime incidents, especially in the Downtown area," Chacon explained, "a small minority of them involve an individual experiencing homelessness. What is driving that right now is gun crime [committed by] people that are not homeless."
When we asked Mackowiak about Chacon's statement, the GOP chair pointed to a Statesman report that found violent crimes involving a suspect experiencing homelessness rose by 10% in 2019, most of them committed against a victim also experiencing homelessness. And he disagreed with Chacon's conclusion that the increase in violent crime was not attributable to an increased presence of the unhoused. "Obviously there's a difference of opinion between [the reporting] and what one person in [APD] leadership is saying." (Police Chief Brian Manley has also said there is no link between violent crime and the revised camping ordinance.) He added that Chacon's assertion could be attributed to APD attempting to "shift blame away from a city policy."
Despite this evidence, some in Austin are clearly fearful of changes they perceive to be brought on by the new camping ordinances. Which means Save Austin Now will likely meet its signature goal to be on the November ballot, ensuring the focus on homelessness will be on restrictions and punishments, and not solutions that help people get housed.
"The GOP leading this anti-homeless effort never explain how someone sleeping in a tent has anything to do with violence," Council Member Greg Casar, who led the rollback effort in June, told us. "Instead of people directing their attention at providing housing and addressing mental health issues to try and solve the problem, the [GOP] just want people to look at a tent and feel upset, instead of focusing on the ways they can help fix these issues."