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One year after voters reinstated the camping ban, Austin's homelessness woes continue

It's been a year since the public camping ban was reinstated and, as a result, tents are a less common sight in Downtown Austin. Yet the issue still remains.

AUSTIN, Texas — The City of Austin has struggled to deal with homelessness for decades. 

For 23 years, a public camping ban was in place. The Austin City Council voted to lift the ban in 2019 and, on May 1, 2021, voters passed Proposition B to reinstate it.

How do things stand one year later? KVUE took a closer look.

What was Proposition B?

Prop B was a ballot item that gave voters the choice to criminalize camping in certain places, sitting or lying on public sidewalks or outdoors in certain areas and panhandling at night. Disobeying the rules led to warnings, citations and jail time. 

Proponents of the ban argued the City wasn't doing enough to get to the root of the homelessness issue, while opponents lambasted Prop B as an effort to push people experiencing homelessness out of sight, with no real path out of homelessness.

Where are we now?

It's been a year since voters overwhelmingly approved the public camping ban's reinstatement. As a result, tents are a less common sight in Downtown Austin.

"The feedback we've gotten from downtown businesses, from hotels, from other property owners and tenants has been very positive from the respect that last year, a year ago, there were people camped out," said Bill Brice, vice president of investor relations for the Downtown Austin Alliance.

According to the Austin Police Department, 242 citations were issued starting June of last year. That data showed one person was arrested for violating the camping ban.

Brice said the alliance is committed in helping to end homelessness in Austin. He said several factors contributed to seeing fewer tents in the area, which he said is great, yet the issue remains.

"It would be unreasonable for people to think that just because Proposition B passed, homelessness is solved. It may not be a problem here now, but chances are it may have moved somewhere else," Brice said.

Austin ECHO has a Homeless Response System Dashboard, in which they track changes in the unhoused population. In the past year, their data shows homelessness has actually grown in Austin.

The organization keeps track of at least two different data sets, one involves people experiencing homeless who are sheltered while the other one involves the same group except these are unsheltered.

Sheltered People Experiencing Homelessness:

  • June 2021 - 625
  • April 2022 - 886 

Unsheltered People Experiencing Homelessness:

  • June 2021 - 2202
  • April 2022 - 2478

Now, people who are unhoused and were once more visible have moved further out. Mayor Steve Adler said that makes fixing the issue harder.

"Some of the people that really need our help are now back to the hiding in the woods and in the streams and in the greenbelt, and they are harder to find," Adler said.

Chris Harris with Homes Not Handcuffs said the group never saw Prop B as a solution. They fought in 2019 to repeal the old camping ban.

"What criminalizing people does is it just hides it, attempts to hide the issue as much as it can. And so, that makes it harder to advocate for real solutions and resources because people don't see the problem," Harris said.

However, Matt Mackowiak and Cleo Petricek – co-founders of Save Austin Now, the group behind Prop B – said enforcement by the City has waned.

"They decreased and now they're starting to come back, and you're starting to see encampments come back across the city," Mackowiak said.

Mackowiak and Petricek said the point of Prop B was to force the City to rethink its approach to helping unhoused people. 

"The city council is not reassuring anyone, especially the homeless community, that they're there looking out for them. Continuing unsafe, filthy encampments is not helping them," Petricek said.

Luke Curry lived in an encampment at St. John Park for three years. He and about 40 others who lived there moved to a City-run shelter after City crews cleared out their encampment.

"Just the park in general is quiet. I mean, it's different. It's a different feeling, a different atmosphere," Curry said, referring to an empty field he once called home.

Curry said people experiencing homelessness are often misunderstood. 

"The people that's living unhoused have been through something, and it takes more than just funding. It takes more than just counseling. It takes time," Curry said.

Adler also said the solution isn't an easy fix.

"The challenge is we don't have homes to put them in. So, if we go and break up an encampment now without places for people to be able to go, all we're doing is scattering people," Adler said.

That's why Adler said the original camping ban was reversed in the first place.

"If somebody just didn't have a home, we thought it was not appropriate to put that person in jail or to give them a ticket. But we couldn't get the resources," Adler said. 

Something positive that came out of the Prop B election, according to Adler, is that it started conversations about ending the challenge the city has dealt with for years.

"Virtually everybody in this community doesn't want anybody in tents anywhere," Adler said.

"No one who voted for Prop B is anti-homeless. We are anti-camping and particularly unsafe, unsanitary and unregulated camping," Mackowiak said.

Across the board, many agree homelessness overlaps with other major issues in Austin: rising costs and lack of affordable housing.

"Really, until we address it, it doesn't matter if we criminalize it or whatnot, we're going to continue to have homelessness and we're going to continue to see unhoused people in our communities," Harris said.

For his part, despite his circumstances, Curry considers himself blessed. 

"You have to hit that bottom before you start to try to come up," he said.

That's the reason he is intent on helping others in similar situations as he seeks to improve his own circumstances.

"Going around all over Austin and help out communities and places like this, that's my goal. That is my purpose," Curry said.

While he helps others, he's racing against the clock, with just one year of free housing through the HEAL initiative, a City intervention program that seeks to shutter encampments in a compassionate way.

"My short-term goal first is still me. I still need to get ... my own housing," Curry said.

He's hoping to not fall back to where so many others in the unhoused community are: hidden and unseen.

Meanwhile, organizations, civic leaders and community members continue to search for a solution to a long-standing problem that so far has offered no easy answers. 

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