(Jordan Vonderhaar)

Half of Austin City Council's 10 seats—Districts 2, 4, 6, 7 and 10—are up for election this November, and nineteen candidates are competing for a spot on the (virtual) dais.


Elected members will be tasked with many important policies, such as the city's land use code, police budget cuts and transit planning. Another issue that has made its way onto the "Issues" vertical of many of the candidates' campaign websites? Homelessness.

In June 2019, Austin City Council rolled back three ordinances that had prohibited sitting, lying and camping in public places and nighttime panhandling.

Advocates said the move was a crucial step in decriminalizing homelessness. But others—including some of the people on the local ballot—were outraged.

The Ending Community Homelessness Coalition conducted its annual point-in-time count, a census of Austin's homeless population, in January and recorded a nearly 45% increase in the number of unsheltered residents.

Then the pandemic arrived, leading shelters to constrict their capacity and the city to open motel rooms in which the city's homeless residents could quarantine.

Austonia asked the candidates to weigh in on the city's homeless issue ahead of Election Day.

Disclaimer: These submissions are unedited; claims made have not been fact-checked.

District 2

(David Chincanchanl, Vanessa Fuentes, Casey Ramos)

David Chincanchan

Do you support the City Council's June 2019 decision to lift the camping ban? Yes.

Why? Our community wants its leaders to end and prevent homelessness. I am fiercely committed to those goals. I supported the repeal because criminalizing our unhoused neighbors is not just morally wrong, it is immensely counterproductive. It creates more barriers to housing and pushes individuals into the margins of our community where they are less able to access critical services.

If elected, what are your priorities when it comes to addressing homelessness in Austin? I support implementing policies and investments that address the root causes of homelessness. Our community must work in unison to prevent and end homelessness by removing barriers to safe, stable and affordable housing. I support deeper investments in permanent supportive housing, rapid rehousing and homelessness prevention services, such as low-barrier rental assistance or emergency direct cash assistance for costs such as medical needs to keep folks housed and prevent displacement that can lead to homelessness.

Vanessa Fuentes

Fuentes did not respond to multiple requests for comment. However, in an interview with the Austin American-Statesman earlier this month, she agreed with Austin City Council's decision to stop ticketing homeless people for living on the streets but criticized the lack of support in place once the ban was lifted.

Casey Ramos

Do you support the City Council's June 2019 decision to lift the camping ban? No.

Why? Public camping is a health and safety hazard, especially during a pandemic. There are reasons we have designated areas for camping, like the need for fresh open spaces and various environmental safety issues.

If elected, what are your priorities when it comes to addressing homelessness in Austin? Wrap-around services like rapid rehousing, emergency shelter, low-cost rental opportunities, mental health services, drug rehabilitation services and employment opportunities.

Alex Strenger

Strenger dropped out of the race and endorsed Ramos.

District 4

(Greg Casar, Louis Herrin, Ramesses II Setepenre)

Council Member Greg Casar

Did you support the City Council's June 2019 decision to lift the camping ban? Yes

Why? We must end homelessness in our city, and we can do that without violating people's human and civil rights. We know it's wrong to throw someone in jail for doing nothing wrong other than simply being homeless. We can end homelessness with housing and services, while also prioritizing public safety for all.

If re-elected, what are your priorities when it comes to addressing homelessness in Austin? For generations our government has not prioritized shelters, housing and mental health care. These failures at every level of government created modern-day homelessness. It's time for Austin to step up and solve an issue that has built up over too long. We can start by acquiring many of the hotels that are sitting half empty during the pandemic, and we can immediately move hundreds of people off the streets into these hotels as housing.

Louis C. Herrin III

Do you support the City Council's June 2019 decision to lift the camping ban? NO.

Why? Lifting the camping ban did not help the problem of homeless(ness), only made it less safe for the people working and going downtown.

If elected, what are your priorities when it comes to addressing homelessness in Austin? We need to set up and work with groups like Haven for Hope and Mobile Loaves and Fishes to help the ones who want help to get out of homeless and work with the state on the ones with mental problems.

Ramessess II Setepenre

Setepenre did not respond to multiple requests for comment. However, in an interview with Community Impact Newspaper last month, he spoke of his own experience with homelessness and said the city needs to address the origins of homelessness, such as substance use and lack of familial support.

District 6

(Jimmy Flannigan, Mackenzie Kelly, Jennifer Mushtaler)

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan

Did you support the City Council's June 2019 decision to lift the camping ban? Yes.

Why? The complex issue of homelessness has no overnight solution. Austin service providers concur that criminalization creates barriers to accessing necessary services to get folks experiencing homelessness into housing, while also adding costs to the criminal justice system. Lifting the camping ban did not mean it became legal to commit property or other crimes. Council has prioritized investments that build interventions and systems that can provide rapid support earlier in crisis, which also saves money.

If re-elected, what are your priorities when it comes to addressing homelessness in Austin? Council's goal is making homelessness brief, rare and non-recurring. Historic investments authorized by council in the last two budgets will make great progress toward this goal. My priority is to ensure our community sees measurable, visible progress in housing our unsheltered population. As chair of the public safety committee, convening service providers, advocates, and council committees, my focus is to ensure that allocated funding is spent as effectively as possible to make the biggest impact.

Mackenzie Kelly

Do you support the City Council's June 2019 decision to lift the camping ban? No.

Why? I did not support the City Council's June 2019 decision to lift the camping ban for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the city is not addressing the systemic reasons that cause homelessness by allowing those without homes to camp all across the city. They do not live in sanitary conditions, and they do not have access to services that might lift them out of homelessness. This was a knee-jerk reaction by the city with no solid plan in place to address homelessness as a whole.

If elected, what are your priorities when it comes to addressing homelessness in Austin? It is by no means a criminal act to not have a home, but out of homelessness often come crimes of desperation. Our city's leadership should strive to create safe environments for those who are homeless to be lifted out of that situation. I would address mental health needs for the homeless, addiction/rehabilitation programs job training, and encourage public-private partnerships that cultivate compassionate solutions for those experiencing homelessness.

Dr. Jennifer Mushtaler

Do you support the City Council's June 2019 decision to lift the camping ban? No.

Why? I do not support Jimmy Flannigan's vote to lift the camping ban. He did not lay the groundwork for solutions and did not provide for community involvement in this process. The explosion of encampments has impeded the livability and workability of our city, the (Austin) Chamber's ability to recruit corporations and our tourism industry. This is a public health problem. Illnesses like tuberculosis, hepatitis and cholera are real concerns for people experiencing homelessness and the public.

If elected, what are your priorities when it comes to addressing homelessness in Austin? I will collaborate with Austin Public Health and our numerous service organizations and industry partners to have a robust and compassionate multi-disciplinary program with personal choice options. I will advocate for changes to building code that will allow for more shelter options within the city. I will advocate to reinstate the public camping ban. I will advocate to fund our law enforcement cadet classes, CIT (Crisis Intervention Team) training and the Austin Police Department.

District 7

(Leslie Pool, Morgan Witt)

Council Member Leslie Pool

Did you support the City Council's June 2019 decision to lift the camping ban? Yes.

Why? My vote to decriminalize homelessness (loosening the no sit/no lie and camping bans) was both a moral decision and a policy decision. I cast my vote with an eye toward ramping up our efforts to assist people experiencing homelessness. I worked with my dais colleagues to provide necessary resources and align our systems with our nonprofit partners whose mission it is to house the homeless and provide other needed services.

If re-elected, what are your priorities when it comes to addressing homelessness in Austin? I will continue to monitor our ongoing initiatives to determine if modifications are needed. I led on a workforce development initiative that coordinates encampment cleanup in our parks, greenbelts and creeks. The Council has approved the purchase of two hotels for housing, is actively searching for additional structures to buy, has focused more intently on providing permanent supportive housing and has activated a more organized system of support with ECHO and other community non-profit organizations.

Morgan Witt

Do you support the City Council's June 2019 decision to lift the camping ban? Yes.

Why? Homelessness isn't a crime but indicative of the community's ability to support people in their time of need. Criminalizing homelessness doesn't make it go away. It not only makes it more difficult for unhoused folks to integrate back into society but also makes them more vulnerable to becoming victims of crime and violence. On top of that, the prison system is an incredibly expensive way to house and care for those experiencing homelessness.

If elected, what are your priorities when it comes to addressing homelessness in Austin?

Now: Free up housing assets (currently used for quarantine) to actually house homeless people. Appoint a director to coordinate between organizations and advocacy groups to quickly connect people with the resources they need.

Long Term: Prevention—address the systemic issues that make people vulnerable to homelessness when they experience a traumatic financial, physical or mental event and don't have a safety net. I'll address Austin's affordability and livability crisis.

District 10

(Alison Alter, Ben Easton, Belinda Greene, Pooja Sethi, Robert Thomas, Jennifer Virden)

Council Member Alison Alter

Did you support the City Council's June 2019 decision to lift the camping ban? No.

Why? I voted against the repeal of the camping ban in June 2019 because I didn't believe that the City had planned for the subsequent challenges we would face, such as maintaining the safety and sanitation of public spaces. As a city and a community I believe we should compassionately help our neighbors exit homelessness, and we should do so with a comprehensive strategy that addresses community concerns. I share the frustration with the current situation.

If re-elected, what are your priorities when it comes to addressing homelessness in Austin? I am focused on 1) managing the safety and sanitation of public spaces; 2) advancing a comprehensive strategy with defined metrics for our investments and targeted approaches for different populations; and 3) addressing immediate housing, mental health, treatment, and employment opportunities and solutions for those experiencing homelessness. I invite you to learn more about my priorities for addressing homelessness at https://bit.ly/31ksye0.

Ben Easton

Do you support the City Council's June 2019 decision to lift the camping ban? NO!

Why? The Council's decision to lift the ban has led to horrifying consequences. Austin is now under siege by thousands of homeless folks, panhandlers, vagrants and con men; the result is pure UGLINESS. Every week this continues, our formerly fair city becomes more unsafe and unattractive. The demagogues in City Hall are jockeying for more power and influence by foisting guilt on law-abiding and tax-paying citizens. The GUILT IS THEIRS, not ours.

If elected, what are your priorities when it comes to addressing homelessness in Austin? Create a dozen rehabilitation sanctuaries located AWAY from downtown on city-owned properties. Military-grade tents will house TEMPORARY residents in Spartan, safe, private conditions as they reboot their lives. The city should NOT go into the housing industry or the mental health industry. This helping hand from taxpayers will be supplemented by private charities. Some can be hired, FULL TIME, in clean-up patrols. All other homeless encampments will be removed, PERMANENTLY!

Belinda Greene

Do you support the City Council's June 2019 decision to lift the camping ban? No.

Why? I do not support the decision to lift the camping ban. Our homeless problem has gotten worse since the camping ban was removed. Their living conditions are unsafe and unhealthy.

If elected, what are your priorities when it comes to addressing homelessness in Austin? We must first identify and temporarily house our most vulnerable - women, minors and veterans. Give them an opportunity to get on their feet. Provide occupational training and medical assistance where needed. Many of these citizens qualify for funds that already exist but because they do not have an address, they cannot access them. We should be researching and implementing programs that do work such as Mobile Loaves and Fishes' Community First! program. We need transparency in this program to determine what the success / failure is of the program and if what we are currently spending on homeless issues is the most effective use of those funds.

Pooja Sethi

Do you support the City Council's June 2019 decision to lift the camping ban? Yes.

Why? Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to listen to an appeal that prohibited criminalizing the homeless if the city is not providing enough beds. Per the City of Austin Homeslessness Dashboard, we only have 2,000 beds, and in the last PIT Count we had more homeless people than beds. As an attorney, I understand we need more than a "no" vote; rather, we must develop aggressive, real solutions to address this crisis.

If elected, what are your priorities when it comes to addressing homelessness in Austin? First, we need better data on the homeless and people on the brink of homelessness. We also need to work with our communities, advocates and first responders to better specify camping restrictions. Next, we need more resources for rapid rehousing and eviction diversion plans. Third, we need to partner with local organizations like TOOF and Camp Esperanza to get more resources, specifically mental health resources, directly to the homeless. Finally, we need more affordable housing.

Robert Thomas

Do you support the City Council's June 2019 decision to lift the camping ban? No.

Why? Alison Alter voted to remove the anti-panhandling and anti-loitering ordinances. This created instant chaos. She argued for removing the camping ban all over the city, except for certain downtown locations. Removing all three of these ordinances created this city-wide public health crisis, and is inhumane to everyone, including the homeless. City Council was grossly negligent, and breached their fiduciary duty to Austinites.

If elected, what are your priorities when it comes to addressing homelessness in Austin? Reinstate all three bans immediately. Implement the Haven for Hope homeless solutions model immediately. Haven for Hope partners with over 180 local, state and federal partners to address the root causes of homelessness by offering programming tailored to individual needs. The approach is person-centered, trauma-informed and recovery-oriented. They meet individuals where they are and support them as they move toward self-sufficiency. Austin was given this same detailed model, but instead abdicated its duties.

Noel Tristan

Tristan did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Jennifer Virden

Do you support the City Council's June 2019 decision to lift the camping ban? No.

Why? What Alter doesn't say is that she voted IN FAVOR of lifting the sit/lie & panhandling ordinances, even though she voted against lifting the public camping ban – in effect, saying "don't blame me." It's the interplay of all 3 that has created this crisis. We need the right policy and the will to enforce it, as other cities like San Antonio do, and stop allowing Austin to be this magnet for the homeless.

If elected, what are your priorities when it comes to addressing homelessness in Austin? Reinstate the camping ban to address our homeless population crisis – multi-pronged approach including tiered levels of housing; mental health services; addiction services. We've an adequate $62 million budget to get this under control. That's ~$30,000 per homeless person. Austin is a compassionate community, and we'll do what is right, but it's unacceptable to allow a crisis comprised of ~2,200 people to disproportionately degrade the quality of life for one million of the rest of us.

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