Each supporters and opponents say Proposition B vote will likely be a turning level in metropolis efforts to cut back homelessness

Proposal B would criminalize public camping in Austin, and sitting, lying, and sleeping in downtown and on the University of Texas campus. (Ben Thompson / Community Impact Newspaper)

Austin voters will vote on eight proposals on May 1, one of which sparked tens of thousands of dollars in political spending and caught the attention of city activists, city officials and lawmakers ahead of Election Day.

If the ballot is passed by voters, it will criminalize activities such as camping and “advertising” or panhandling in public spaces, lying or sitting on sidewalks and sleeping outdoors in downtown Austin and on the University of Austin campus Texas.

The practices referred to in the nomination stem from the Austin City Council’s 2019 decision to remove penalties for such activities. Critics of the city’s current approach say this has created “chaos” as the city’s homeless population and camps have grown.

“Nobody is safe in these unregulated camps. Nobody can say that this was a solution. It’s not for anyone, ”said Cleo Petricek, co-founder of Save Austin Now’s Political Action Committee behind the petition that put Proposition B on the May 1st ballot.

Petricek said she became politically involved with the Austin homelessness issue after seeing a surge in local camps and hearing from residents concerned about public safety related to the sites. Petricek cited the rise in crime, including drug use, and fire incidents as concerns she and other community members now share about homeless camps. A month before the vote on Proposal B, fires in multiple camps drew attention to the city’s camping policy and prompted several politicians to grapple with the issue and its connection to the nomination.

“There is a criminal element emerging from these unregulated camps and I have a feeling that no one has responded to and listened to the needs of this community,” she said. “It’s not shocking anymore; It’s something Austin has basically accepted now that it wasn’t two years ago. “

Critics of the Save Austin Now proposal and campaign agree that the current state of unprotected homelessness and publicly accessible campsites in the city is unsustainable. However, nonprofit and community groups focused on helping the homeless in Austin, including the youth, the disabled and victims of violence, say the proposal’s focus is wrong at best and likely to degrade homeless camp safety and the city’s ability to do that Defusing the problem becomes more difficult.

Amanda Lewis, co-founder of the Survivor Justice Project, a sexual violence advocacy group, cited arguments in favor of the homeless crime proposal as “a fear and a fear tactic”.

“Not to say that abuse doesn’t happen everywhere because it really does, but it is not a root cause of violence against women at all, and it stigmatizes and makes it harder for us to address the root causes.” Said Lewis.

Summer Wright, a member of the Austin Youth Collective youth-homeless engagement group who has experienced homelessness in the past, said personal safety and violence concerns can often lead people to leave their homes or avoid homeless shelters, putting them on the Street or public land camp. Critics of the nomination said that possible changes to the city ordinance aimed at housing rather than criminalization would be more effective in reducing the number of people living on the streets.

“When I think about the solutions … it’s really about getting to the roots and sustaining these community resources, and of course I think Prop B doesn’t do any of those things,” said Lewis. “[Proposition B] It feels a lot like putting people in the shadows, which is more dangerous for women in homelessness. That is a deeper level of vulnerability. “

Chris Harris, criminal justice project manager at the Texas Appleseed Nonprofit Justice Center, also identified racial differences that could result from criminalization efforts. Harris said an analysis of 2018 camping tickets, following quotes from the year prior to the city’s lifting of the camping ban, found that a proportion of tickets issued to blacks was well above Austin’s estimated black population and of the unprotected black population at the time.

“Ultimately, this suggests that this is the wrong approach to addressing this problem, which will lead to racially divergent outcomes and actually exacerbate the homelessness problem in our community,” he said.

In addition to public safety concerns, Proposition B opponents, including Harris; Community Organizer Carmen Llanes Pulido; and Tanya Lavelle, a policy specialist at Disability Rights Texas, highlighted the potential legal ramifications of recriminalizing practices related to homelessness. A change in the city’s policy on public camping, sitting and sleeping could leave people affected by homelessness trapped in a cycle of fines and attending court hearings.

“When enforced, these regulations actually create incredible barriers to actually getting out of the situation of homelessness and actually keeping people in that situation longer,” said Harris.

Chris Davis, communications manager for the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition of Austin and Travis Counties, said the current camping situation, while not ideal in the long run, has improved accessibility and relationship building between service providers and the homeless. Another effect of banning more visible camps would be a loss of confidence and likely a decline in care for those who now live in the city’s camps.

Considerations for Steps Forward

Regardless of the election result, Petricek said Save Austin Now plans to continue public relations and education, calling for more solutions from city officials and new rapid restructuring efforts. If the move is approved by voters and warehouses are to be closed citywide, immediate solutions could include establishing designated, government-managed campsites outside of downtown or converting vacant Austin city lots into temporary residential areas.

“They don’t need a suggestion to find safe campsites for them because life in unregulated camps is not safe for them and not safe for the communities,” said Petricek. “The reason I got into this is because color communities, working class communities, are the hardest hit and everyone ignores that and doesn’t blame the city council.”

Proposition B opponents also highlighted new developments at the city level as immediate advances. The first phase of Austin’s ongoing Housing-Focused Homeless Encampment Assistance Link (HEAL) program to clear four selected camps is ongoing. And new commitments from government, business, nonprofit, and philanthropic organizations resulting from a recent Citizens’ Summit could raise hundreds of millions of dollars to shelter thousands of homeless people in three years.

In launching these initiatives, however, activists hope the outcome of the May 1 election will not minimize the community’s focus on the city’s homelessness, and see that enthusiasm for large-scale solutions recede a step if the camps are in the Stay downtown.

“The greatest pressure Austin has ever felt to house people is in the moment, not when he was criminalized and out of sight. Criminalizing it and pushing people away so people don’t have to think about it has the opposite effect, ”Wright said. “Overtaking Prop B and … having the problem of walking away while there is still a lot left in our area takes all the wind and sucks it right out of the sails, and then we’re back, not in first place , but place two or three. ”

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