Texas Gov. Greg Abbott threatens to intervene in Austin’s “homelessness crisis”

Texas Tribune News

Tents set up near the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, or ARCH, in downtown Austin on Aug. 2, 2019.
Tents set up near the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, or ARCH, in downtown Austin on Aug. 2, 2019.
Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott presented Austin and its Mayor Steve Adler with an ultimatum Wednesday: “Demonstrate consequential improvement in the Austin homelessness crisis” by Nov. 1 or the state will step in.

In a press release announcing the warning, Abbott’s office lamented reports of “violence, used needles, and feces littering the streets of Austin and endangering Texas residents.” The situation has drawn the ire from a number of Republican officials and certain Austin businesses owners who have decried recent changes to city ordinances — meant to avoid criminalizing homelessness — as a threat to public safety and the local economy.

Under the ordinance sitting and camping in public, except on parkland, is legal as long as a person does not endanger “the health or safety of another person or of themselves” or make “usage of such area unreasonably inconvenient or hazardous.”

“As the Governor of Texas, I have the responsibility to protect the health and safety of all Texans, including Austin residents,” Abbott wrote in a letter to Adler. “Further inaction by you and the Austin City Council will leave me no choice other than to use the tools available to the State of Texas to ensure that people are protected from health and safety concerns caused by the Austin homeless policies.”

If there’s no change by Nov. 1, the governor laid out several strategies the state can utilize. Those agencies include the Health and Human Services Commission, which has the authority “to adopt rules in the areas of communicable disease, sanitation and health protection,” Abbott said. The Texas Department of Public Safety, he warned, will add troopers in Austin areas that “pose greater threats.”

“DPS also stands ready to increase security for state agencies that are forced to respond to the homelessness crisis,” Abbott said.

In a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Adler said he understood “the angst and concern” that prompted Abbott to deliver the ultimatum. The mayor said he welcomed the prospect of state assistance in addressing what he characterized as a state and national issue and that he hoped the governor’s office would be a part of upcoming city meetings to monitor progress and see where state assistance would be useful.

“This is a community right now that is locked on the goal of ending homelessness,” Adler said. “It would be easier, it would happen more rapidly if we had the state’s support and I would welcome that assistance.”

Adler specifically referenced cleaning up encampments near overpasses or providing portable toilets for individuals experiencing homelessness. He added that Austin Chief of Police Brian Manley said the city’s police department does not need additional resources to enforce ordinances regarding public defecation, aggressive confrontation and trespassing.

“The governor wants to see action by [Nov. 1],” Adler said. “My hope is that the governor starts to see action by next week.”

“I recognize the angst and concern that is happening in our community now as homelessness is becoming increasingly visible,” he added. “But we didn’t create more people experiencing homelessness. We see it now. And I am told that because we are seeing them more now, the support groups of the city are now able to give assistance and help to more people than they have ever been able to do before.”

This is not the first time Abbott has railed against the city’s policy. In June, he threatened to override the ordinances. Saying that “the horror stories are piling up,” he also shared a tweet that wrongly linked a car accident to a group of people experiencing homelessness running into traffic.

Earlier this week, U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, sent his own letter to Adler condemning the city’s ordinance. In his letter, he called the policy a “lazy approach to dealing with homeless individuals in our community.” The congressman closed the letter by asking the city to collaborate with local organizations to provide resources, like beds, and work toward identifying permanent housing and employment opportunities for the homeless community.

The Travis County Republican Party has also organized a petition drive calling for the policy to be rescinded.

“Homeless people are camping on sidewalks downtown (in front of businesses), there have been several violent attacks, and they continue to camp in parks and on private property, believing that they either won’t be reported to police or police won’t remove them,” said Travis County GOP Chair Matt Mackowiak. “It is time to rescind this policy which is bad for tourism, the Austin economy, public safety and public health.”

Disclosure: Steve Adler, a former Texas Tribune board chairman, has been a financial supporter of the Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.