Greg Abbott says TxDOT could remove homeless camps from Austin's highway underpasses

Texas Tribune News

Homeless people have set up camp under Highway 290 in South Austin.
Homeless people have set up camp under Highway 290 in South Austin.
Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

Gov. Greg Abbott‘s office said Friday the Texas Department of Transportation could force homeless Austin residents out from under bridges and overpasses where some of them live or camp if recent changes to city ordinances don’t result in less feces and fewer needles by Nov. 1.

Abbott plans to work with homeless shelters in Austin, according to a statement from a spokesman, who said they are currently working out details about when or how the camps will be cleared if such a plan is implemented.

The announcement comes less than a day after the Austin City Council changed its ordinances regarding camping, sitting and lying in public spaces. Camping is now banned on city sidewalks, near homeless shelters in and around downtown, and in high wildfire risk areas. Sitting and lying are no longer permitted within 15 feet of the entrance or exit to a business or residence.

“By reforming its homelessness policy, the city of Austin has taken a meaningful step to address the safety and health of Texans — including the homeless,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman said in a statement Friday afternoon. “The state will monitor how well the new policy actually reduces the skyrocketing complaints about attacks by the homeless and other public safety concerns. The state will also continue to monitor water quality for e-coli and other bacteria.”

The city’s change will go into effect Oct. 27, four days before a deadline Abbott gave Austin officials to make a “consequential improvement” with what he called a homelessness crisis in the state’s capital. That deadline and this week’s changes follow the council’s controversial decision earlier this year to relax some ordinances that critics said criminalized homelessness.

News of TxDOT’s potential plans, which the Austin American-Statesman first reported, broke as Austin Mayor Steve Adler met with the media. Adler said he had not communicated with the governor, but that it had been suggested to him that Abbott would move people out of encampments under overpasses near state roads.

“I hope he doesn’t do that unless he has somewhere for those people to go,” Adler said, adding that he doesn’t want people living under overpasses, but he doesn’t want them moved into less public spaces like the woods, either.

Adler also said that he hopes the governor provides people experiencing homelessness with “a housing exit” should Abbott choose to move people into shelters.

Forcing homeless residents from encampments can be tricky, experts say. The Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, a research institution at Arizona State University, has studied dozens of cases and identified recommendations for removing people from encampments. These include having a long-term homelessness plan and including homeless advocacy groups from the start. Michael Scott, the center’s director, said officials should justify removing people, document conditions and involve social service agencies.

“All of this takes a fair amount of planning and coordination and local police should refuse to participate in anything that doesn’t include this higher planning and coordination with all these providers and legal council,” Scott said. “And there should be fair notice given to anyone: What is going to happen and when is going to happen.”

In an Oct. 2 letter to Adler, Abbott warned that he would direct state agencies to “protect the health and safety” of Austinites and cited Department of Public Safety’s authority to enforce criminal trespassing law and mentioned Department of Health and Human Services’ authority to address disease outbreaks. While the letter referenced “reports of violence, used needles and feces,” it does not mention a specific outbreak of any diseases.

Adler and city staff have pushed back on the notion that the city is experiencing a public health and safety crisis. But Adler welcomed state assistance on Friday, mentioning that the city needs more help with mental health and substance abuse treatment, respite care, waste cleanup and rental payment assistance programs.

Data from the Austin Police Department indicates a 6% increase in violent crime and a 5% increase in property crime when comparing summer 2019 — after the camping ban was relaxed — to summer 2018.

“Those are all small numbers relative to what you would get a feel for if you’re only watching social media in the city,” Adler said, encouraging Texans to look at the numbers.

Austin Police Chief Brian Manley presented the crime data comparing summer 2018 to summer 2019 at Thursday’s City Council meeting.

Manley reported a 15% increase in violent crime and a 20% increase in property crime where the suspect and victim were both homeless. In cases with a homeless suspect and a non-homeless victim, violent crime increased by 11% and property crime by 2%. And in cases with a homeless victim and a non-homeless suspect, violent crime increased 19% and property crime increased 42%.

On Wednesday, Manley said the city is facing a “public order” issue, not a public safety crisis while noting that interactions between homeless and non-homeless people have increased following the June ordinance change.

Manley has suggested the city revert to the old ordinances while leaders work to a tenable solution.

Stephanie Hayden, director of Austin Public Health, said in a council work session Tuesday that the city is not in the midst of a public health crisis, adding that she is not aware of any spread of communicable disease from the homeless population to the non-homeless population since June.

The Austin Parks and Recreation Department also reported that it has not seen “a measurable increase” in feces, needles or garbage near encampments since June.

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.