AUSTIN, Texas — After a series of fires at Austin-area homeless camps this week, including one Thursday night that damaged the historical Buford Tower in Downtown Austin, City leaders held a press conference to address homelessness and the upcoming Proposition B on the May ballot.
During the virtual conference, viewers heard from Austin Mayor Steve Adler, Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper Madison, Councilmember Greg Casar, Chas Moore with the Austin Justin Coalition, Chris Baker with The Other Ones Foundation, Walker Moreau with Foundation Communities and Heidi Sloan with Homes Not Handcuffs.
House Bill 1925 and Senate Bill 987 are also making their way through the state legislative process. As companion bills, their language is the same and would essentially make camping in public spaces without permission a misdemeanor.
"Whether they vote yes or no to reinstate the ban [through Prop B], we'll be here at the State to do our best to keep our streets safe and and help those folks who are in a significant public safety crisis," State Sen. Dr. Dawn Buckingham (R-Lakeway) said.
Buckingham helped author SB 987 in response to the camping ban being lifted by Austin City Council, saying it's about public health and public safety.
"It basically reinstates the ban in camping in public areas so that the folks aren't able to just clog up the sidewalks with all their tents and everything," Buckingham said. "I think we will get bipartisan support. I think we all want safe streets and good public health."
To watch the conference on KVUE's YouTube channel, click here.
Here are a few quotes from the speakers:
Mayor Steve Adler
"We can't go back to the failed policies of the past that we know don't work, like criminalizing homelessness and putting people in jail and giving them fines, tickets for being homeless. We also have to do better than we're doing right now with respect to the encampments that people see. We can and we will, and the council is taking action and the community is coming forward with a new way to approach this challenge. Last night's fires were horrible and we're fortunate that no one died, but it should renew and redouble our efforts to get people out of tents everywhere and to get them into homes."
Mayor Pro-Tem Natasha Harper-Madison
"I'll just say what I think we're all thinking: I'm tired of talking about this. I'm tired and I'm ready for action. But Proposition B won't house anyone. People living in tents in the Capital City, that problem will not be solved with tickets and jail. Frankly, you can vote for this measure or don't vote for the measure, it doesn't amount to a hill of beans if we don't make real investments in communities that actually house people. The same voices that express discontent about the visibility of the unhoused, well, they also expressed discontent about the 4 million unhoused being sheltered, housed in their communities, individuals living near them. 'Where do you want them to go?' is the question I ask. How do we decide which communities are appropriate to shelter people? I think we need to stop with the hypocrisy. I think we need to stop with the prejudice against people caught up in poverty or mental illness. Let's just make the commitment to removing the artificial barriers that we've created that prevent housing more people who need it right now. Let's invest in housing, invest in people, invest in communities, invest in humanity. Affordability and homelessness go hand in hand. The solution is not tickets and arrests. The solution is housing, housing, housing."
Chas Moore - Austin Justice Coalition
"If we vote on Prop B and we only had the problem when we put them back in harmful terrain, such as the woods and places like that, this is only going to make these type of incidents more likely to happen and way more dangerous. And the fact that nobody has died because of these fires is a miracle. But I guarantee you that if these people are pushed back out to the furthest margins of our communities and of our city, I don't think we'll be that lucky."
"I really hope that we as a community don't take the fact that nobody was harmed in these fires for granted. And I really hope we take this moment to come together and continue to work towards an actual solution ... The solution is housing. And I hope we can continue to work together as this great city that we are to make the solution a reality."
Chris Baker - The Other Ones Foundation
"A lot of our operations do run out of the Esperanza community, which was the site of one of the fires. And we had about 10 people who have lost their place that they were staying. And as you know, we're working as hard as we can to try to find alternative shelter for those folks and, hopefully, we will by next week. But the question in the meantime is, is where do we go? And this is the question that we hear from people who are displaced by whatever means they're displaced by, whether that is by people who are currently camping in places where they're not allowed to be. And certainly, if the places that people are allowed to be are restricted even further, then we're going to be getting that question a whole lot more. And, of course, you know, the only really humane and dignified answer that we can give to that question is housing. And so, we need to make the investments necessary to get our homeless response system access to as much housing stock as possible. We can do it. We've done it before. Our brothers and sisters that are out here living on the streets, many of them are there because of a lot of the systems that we have in place that makes it incredibly difficult not only to pay for but just simply to access housing. And so, we need to make the big investments in public housing, low-barrier public housing and affordable housing."
Walter Moreau - Foundation Communities
"We're a local nonprofit that provides affordable housing. We have 23 communities north, south, east and west. About 7,000 residents and about 1,000 of our residents were formerly homeless. As everybody has said, housing really works. People just need that support. And 20 years ago, we opened our very first supportive housing community for single adults. We bought the old nursing home called Garden Terrace on William Cannon. It was in bad shape, but we've totally renovated it. It's been a great home for over 100 residents over the last 20 years. Nobody knows that it's supportive housing. Then we bought three hotels that we converted into really great places to live. And that strategy has really worked. We've built Capitol Studios downtown, the first affordable housing in 40 years. That's our single adults, musicians, folks that are working and folks that are not able to work. Veterans Bluebonnet Studios on South Lamar. And we just opened Waterlily Terrace, 132 apartments up by The Domain. We've had 1,300 people apply for those 132 apartments, 10 applicants for every single apartment. It's really overwhelming. We just broke ground this week on Zilker Studios on South Lamar. We need to do more. The need is great and we're not alone. I'm so proud of the work that Mobile Loaves and Fishes does, that Caritas care, Lifeworks. We all have slightly different models and that's a good thing. We need all of the above."
Heidi Sloan - Homes Not Handcuffs
"I just want to take a moment after reading through the news and the reactions this morning to acknowledge that what we're dealing with here is human dignity and human suffering, and to say that those people who are affected by incidents like fires, like freezes, like being moved out of their homes, these folks are not the perpetrators of the problem here. They are people who have been pushed out of a system of care and of justice. And it is our duty as a community to stand up for them and to demand real solutions. Placing blame for someone who has been through something so difficult of any of those three examples is the wrong-headed reaction. And we are here to push for better, to continue the long and hard road that we have committed ourselves to, to push for housing as the only solution."
"I myself have worked alongside folks who have experienced chronic homelessness in Austin for the last eight years. And I know that when we shame folks who are so directly impacted by the injustices of our economic system, when we push them further and further from justice and from care, we actually are pushing them away from the real solution, which is housing, which is recovery, which is services."
Councilmember Greg Casar
"The fire at Buford Tower last night was awful. The fire at the governor-setup Camp Esperanza last night was awful. It's also awful that people have to sleep outdoors and sometimes have to start fires to stay warm. That's all unacceptable. The only solution for all of this is for us to do what generations before us have failed to do: house and serve those folks who are homeless. This is our collective responsibility. That's why our City and our County and our private sector have to come together to invest in housing 1,000 unsheltered people in this next year. We must, we can and we will. There are snake-oil salesmen today saying that the solution to all of this is to criminalize the poor, and that won't help. We've seen that. That doesn't help. Here's a couple of examples. The press covered quite a bit when the governor said he was going to sweep out all of the people from underpasses. But we know that has not reduced homelessness under our bridges. In fact, the City's current rules already ban camping in parks and on sidewalks, like those next to Buford, but that hasn't reduced homelessness. If we want to prevent fires, if we want to prevent frostbite, if we want to reduce harm and death, if we want to reduce homelessness in our city, there's only one real path forward – moving hundreds of people from the streets in the housing."
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