Governor, mayor battle over Austin homelessness as progressive city’s crisis deepens

A growing homeless crisis in the Texas capital has the governor and mayor clashing, and Austin residents say the progressive city in a red state seems to be losing ground.

The city’s plight has prompted a war of words between Mayor Steve Adler and Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who has not been shy about criticizing policies he says make the situation worse. Abbott took to his personal Twitter account to say the city’s ordinances are “dangerous for everyone” after a homeless man fatally stabbed another man, then jumped off a building and later died from his injuries. In an interview with Fox News, Adler took offense at what he considered a suggestion that homelessness and violence are linked.

“It’s similar to making the statement that immigrants are criminals,” Adler said. “Neither of things are true. Both of them are false and harmful.”

But several residents say the problem is only getting worse.

“There are tons [of incidents involving homeless people], like all the time,” Austin Resident Candace Copper said. “It’s a problem, I think there are definitely things that we need to do to help the situation.”

The City of Austin rolls back homeless camping ban, allowing camping under bridges.

The City of Austin rolls back homeless camping ban, allowing camping under bridges.
(Hunter Davis)

Cooper has several homeless camps across from her home and she is not alone.

“We probably have about 7,000 or more people in our city that over the course of the year come into and out of homelessness,” Adler acknowledged. This is a challenge that is not new, it has been developing for a long time.”

The back and forth between Abbott and Adler comes after the city lifted a camping ban in 2019, allowing homeless people to camp on city streets as long as they are not impacting the safety or health of someone else. There are still ordinances in place that restrict homeless individuals from camping, sitting or lying down within 15 feet of a doorway to a home or open business, as well as near a city-operated emergency shelter. The ordinance also bans camping on sidewalks or state and city parks.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott takes to personal Twitter Page to list the steps to

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott takes to personal Twitter Page to list the steps to “fix homelessness.”
(Hunter Davis)

The decision to dial back the camping ban sparked major blowback, including from Abbott, who tweeted in January that “Fixing homelessness in ATX is easy,” but that “Austin doesn’t have the leadership to do this.” In the same tweet, Abbott urged the city to put public safety first, then open large shelters that can hold more than 200 people, provide job training and mental health drug addiction help and finally, to focus on long-term housing.

Adler said the city continues to focus on homelessness, and pointed to a $63 million budget commitment to fund resources for the homeless.

“The city has identified dealing with the challenge of homelessness as the number one priority,” Adler said. “A lot of it is money helping to subsidize places for people to be, coming up with vouchers for hotels, providing rental assistance, providing programs to people before they become homeless.”

The money also provides support for places like the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, or ARCH.

The City of Austin has resource center to help homeless individuals.

The City of Austin has resource center to help homeless individuals.
(Hunter Davis)

“We are trying to provide some of the tools where if someone just needs a light touch, just some assistance to get back on their feet they can do that,” Front Steps Executive Director Greg McCormack said. “People can come in who are homeless and talk with someone about what their needs are, we have a laundry facility where they can do some laundry, we have showers and bathrooms, phones and other resources.”

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The center doubles as an emergency night shelter for men and a day resource center for anyone who is homeless and in need of resources. As of now, the center services roughly 300 to 500 people a day, including Robert Baines, who has been homeless for two years.

“Anything can happen to put you in a situation like this,” Baines said. “Instead of building someone up, you just tear them down and we are already down, I mean how much further can we go than the grave?”

The city also has a motel strategy in place which would ideally provide roughly 300 rooms to help house homeless people by the end of February.  Meanwhile, the governor’s latest tweet calls for a reinstatement of the camping ban which follows a previous warning that the Texas Legislature will “again override Austin’s Reckless Policies.

Texas Governor continuously targets City of Austin's leadership on social media.

Texas Governor continuously targets City of Austin’s leadership on social media.
(Hunter Davis)

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