A Key Fight Against Criminalizing Homelessness Is Playing Out in Austin, Texas

Austin, Texas, has been an important front in the battle for housing justice, where efforts to decriminalize homelessness have previously been successful. The city’s voters will soon need to defend those gains from a right wing trying to claw them back.

Homeless men and women avoid direct sun by sitting beneath Interstate 35 near downtown Austin, Texas, on August 14, 2019. (Tamir Kalifa / Getty Images)

Last week, Texas captured national attention with the devastating collapse of the state’s deregulated energy grid. Millions of people went without power and water for days, leaving mutual aid networks to compensate for institutional negligence. In the capital city, downtown areas remained lit, and hotel prices surged while East Austin faced severe outages. Meanwhile, as people scrambled to find food, shelter, and heat, no one was more vulnerable than the unhoused.

For decades, Austin has been the site of struggles for homeless rights, the latest wave of which will be coming to a head this May with a ballot measure aiming to recriminalize homelessness citywide. In some ways, Austin has stood out as a bastion of progressive politics in the heart of Texas; most visibly, in recent years, the city passed mandatory paid sick leave and elected city council member Greg Casar and district attorney José Garza, both of whom are members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Austin’s vicious back-and-forth battle with housing injustice, however, remains ongoing.

Cities across the United States are facing affordable housing crises, and Austin, Texas — growing faster than any other metropolitan area in the country — is no exception. As Austin’s housing costs rise, so does its unhoused population. According to the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition’s 2020 point-in-time count, homelessness in Austin hit a ten-year high last year. Like many municipalities, Austin’s response has generally been to eschew permanent housing solutions and resort to homeless criminalization — prohibiting sitting/lying, camping, and soliciting in public, and forcing these problems out of the public eye.

A 2017 city audit confirmed that the criminalization of these life-sustaining activities in Austin creates barriers to exiting homelessness, and a 2018 report by Grassroots Leadership and Gathering Ground Theatre substantiated those findings. Documenting the experiences of people directly impacted by city ordinances punishing sitting/lying, camping, and soliciting, their report established that job loss, release from jail, domestic violence, and scarce mental health and addiction support are primary causes of homelessness. Police enforcement through ticketing and arrests only aggravates these causes, contributing to a lack of rest, harm to physical and mental health, and difficulty securing sustained employment and housing.

The dangers of over-policing are compounded by the persistence of Austin’s racialized housing disparities. To this day, people of color in Travis County are 1.5 times more likely than white people to experience homelessness, and despite 35 percent of people of color in Travis County being black, black people represent 57 percent of people of color experiencing homelessness. Current spikes in COVID-19 cases at the Travis County jail only emphasize the cruelty of over-policing, directing harm toward black and brown people most liberal Austinites would like to claim matter.

That a Housing First policy, not policing and criminalization, is what truly helps reduce homelessness has become decidedly more mainstream lately. Criminalization’s detrimental impact on transitions from homelessness to housing has been a driving factor in municipal fights for decriminalization, a shift that allows homeless residents to camp safely in public instead of hiding in ditches and flood zones.

In Austin, a group leading the push for Housing First approaches to homelessness, which both authors have been involved in, is Homes Not Handcuffs, a coalition of local organizations that includes Austin DSA, Grassroots Leadership, Mobile Loaves & Fishes, and others. In 2019, the group led a hard-fought campaign to repeal the city’s anti-homeless ordinances, and after hundreds of testimonies and a sixteen-hour meeting, Austin City Council voted to overturn the homeless criminalization measures, marking a stunning departure from the status quo.

Two homeless people sit on ground on Guadalupe Street in Austin, Texas. (Flickr)

Ordinance adjustments granted people the right to rest and ask for financial help. People previously banished to dangerous creeks and woods were able to emerge and find solace in the shelter of underpasses and the privacy of tents. Rates of survey accuracy, resource distribution, and shelter support for homeless people all improved.

While these gains were being tallied, unfortunately, a swift backlash responded to increased visibility of homelessness. Governor Greg Abbott spent the better part of 2019 stoking the fires of public opposition, spreading misinformation on Twitter, exaggerating public health risks, and calling for camp sweeps. A group called Save Austin Now was founded in 2019 by Travis County Republican Party chairman Matt Mackowiak and endorsed by the Austin Police Association, and in June 2020 — amid the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests — Save Austin Now began a petition drive to reinstate camping bans, restore and expand the no-sit/no-lie ordinance, and ban panhandling from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Despite deceptive tactics and paid canvassers, the $150,000 campaign proved to be insufficient in reaching a twenty-thousand-signature threshold, a failure due in large part to organized counter-canvassing and pushes to rescind signatures. Save Austin Now decided to ramp up their petition drive in January 2021. Canvassers once again misled voters; people reported being tricked with misleading characterizations of the petition’s aim. This time, Save Austin Now’s efforts were successful. Austinites can expect to see the Proposition B measure to recriminalize homelessness on their May 1 ballots.

Save Austin Now’s defeat in the upcoming May election is by no means a foregone conclusion. Austin is a generally left-wing area, situated in a county Bernie Sanders won in both the 2016 and 2020 Democratic primaries. On the spectrum of Democratic municipalities, one might expect to find it ahead of the curve on issues of policing and housing. In some ways, it is: on top of homeless ordinance rollbacks, Austin organizers recently won a reduction in the Austin Police Department budget, with some of that funding now being reallocated to purchase a municipally owned hotel that will be used to transition people out of homelessness.

However, even as they are pushed to make progress, local leaders in Austin face a tension now common in the Democratic coalition. Wealthy professionals moving to the city are a very real constituency who, while proudly supporting Democrats like Joe Biden nationally, react poorly to the sight of unhoused people when they head downtown for a meal. The fact that increased funding for low-barrier shelters and permanent supportive housing is what will truly address homelessness in Austin may prove immaterial to them; many people would prefer to just use renewed criminalization to make the crisis an out-of-sight, out-of-mind problem once more. In the absence of a better framework for addressing homelessness, throwing cops at the crisis is considered the default.

As such, local leaders have recently been cagey on homelessness decriminalization. This “negotiably progressive” dynamic was present in Austin City Council’s passing of the HEAL initiative in February 2021, which will partially reinstate camping bans in select areas. The Democratic officials supporting HEAL may mean well, but they are loath to incur the ire of homeowners agitating to push Austin’s homeless away once more. With some exceptions, local electeds are likely to give Prop B a wide berth, or else offer only meek condemnations of this serious threat. Travis County GOP representatives may be loudly championing recriminalization, but these Republicans are not alone. Save Austin Now has been strategic in its outwardly nonpartisan billing, allowing them to remain palatable to a decent enough margin of liberals to stand a chance at winning May’s undoubtedly low-turnout election.

Defeating the Prop B ballot measure could be the next national event to renew ongoing conversations about the scope and purview of policing and the right to housing. Given the early success of Austin’s homelessness decriminalization, alongside the election of fiercely reform-oriented DA José Garza, the city is poised to gain more momentum and position itself as a national model for rehabilitation and decarceration, much like Larry Krasner’s 2017 Philadelphia DA victory marked an early example of how a progressive district attorney can win and implement aggressive agendas. At the same time, gentrification and growth are naturally incentivizing the over-policing of unhoused people. As cities try every trick up their sleeves to make downtown areas attractive to capital, the desire to simply push homeless neighbors out of view is overwhelming.

With early voting beginning Monday, April 19, unhoused organizers and allies are ramping up opposition to Prop B, hoping to once again stop the criminalization of people in need of housing. Only time will tell whether Austinites are more interested in permanent solutions or profitable suffering.