Austin residents can now vote on Proposition B, which would reinstate a city ban on camping, sitting, lying and other activities in certain public places. City Council overturned the ban in 2019 after a successful campaign by advocates, who argued that it criminalized homelessness.
Since then, however, the city's homeless population has grown, both in size and visibility, prompting concerns from residents, business owners and elected officials about public health and safety. Texas lawmakers are considering a statewide ban on public camping, in a clear rebuke to local policy.
Prop B supporters and opponents agree that homelessness has reached crisis status in Austin, but they also acknowledge the ban will do little to address the root causes of homelessness. So who is homeless in Austin, and why?
The Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, a local nonprofit, conducts a homeless census, called the point-in-time count, each January. This year's count was canceled due to pandemic concerns; the 2020 count found a nearly 45% increase in the local unsheltered homeless population compared to 2019 count, which ECHO attributed to a 39% increase in volunteers, among other factors.
Chris Harris, director of Texas Appleseed's Criminal Justice Project and an activist who helped overturn the camping ban, attributed this growth to rising housing costs in Austin and the pandemic recession. "There are really good reasons for it to go up," he told Austonia.
The point-in-time count helps identify trends but is considered an undercount. National consultants hired by the city of Austin estimate that 10,350 people in Austin-Travis County—around 1% of the total county population—experienced homelessness over the course of Fiscal Year 2020, according to a July 2020 report. Austin ISD estimates nearly 2,000 of its enrolled students experienced homelessness in the 2018-19 school year.
ECHO's Point-in-Time count data provides some indication of disparities in the local homeless population. For example, Black individuals are significantly overrepresented, making up around 9% of the Travis County population but more than 36% of the 2020 Austin-Travis County homeless population. Similarly, veterans account for around 4% of the county population but more than 10% of the homeless population.
The root causes of homelessness are harder to pin down.
There are individual factors, such as severe mental illness, addiction, domestic violence and poverty. Youth may become homeless when they age out of foster care or are thrown out of their homes.
A used syringe found on the ground at a homeless encampment under an overpass in South Austin near the Westgate shopping center. (Jordan Vonderhaar)
Substance use is both a cause and a result of homelessness, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. (Jordan Vonderhaar)
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that around 18% of homeless Texans are severely mentally ill, 12% are chronic substance abusers and 11% are victims of domestic violence, according to 2020 point-in-time count data. Up-to-date data on substance use is sparse, but a 1996 national survey of homeless assistance providers and clients found that more than 80% of chronically homeless individual has experienced lifetime alcohol and drug problems.
Experts point to myriad systemic reasons for the increasing number of homeless people across the U.S., including:
- urban renewal, during which affordable housing was destroyed
- the deinstitutionalization of mental health patients in the mid-20th century
- disinvestment in public housing and other welfare programs starting in the Reagan administration
- mass incarceration, which leaves many with criminal records that limit job and housing access
- drug epidemics
- increasingly expensive medical care
- widening income inequality
- rising housing costs
A minimum wage worker in the Austin metro would have to work 156 hours a week to afford a market-rate, one-bedroom apartment, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. There are 168 hours in a week; at $7.25 an hour, this work schedule would leave no money left over for other expenses.
In the last few months, the city of Austin has ramped up its response to homelessness, using federal COVID relief dollars to provide short-term rental assistance to more than 400 homeless residents; purchasing hotels that will provide permanent supportive 140 housing units for chronically homeless individuals, despite pushback; and passing the HEAL initiative, which aims to connect around 100 homeless camp residents to housing.
Mobile Loaves & Fishes, a local nonprofit, also recently announced a major expansion of Community First! Village, a master-planned community that is home to more than 220 formerly chronically homeless residents. Starting next summer, the village will grow to add 1,400 additional residences.
"There is no shortage of pressure to address this crisis, and the pressure has existed—and should have—long before the ballot initiative was even on the horizon," Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey said during a press conference earlier this month.
Despite this pressure, the city's homelessness response remains underfunded. "We are far, far under-resourced to address the issue adequately," Grey said. "So the idea that, because we have spent or extended resources in response to this problem and it is not gone, I think, is a real logical fallacy."
This story was updated on April 21 to include context for the year-over-year increase in unsheltered homelessness detailed in the 2020 Point-in-Time count.
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The Austin airport is warning travelers to “pack your patience” as it expects this Memorial Day weekend to be the busiest in airport history.
This weekend will kick off a period of more than 4.8 million passengers passing through Austin-Bergstrom International Airport by the end of summer—contributing to a projected record-breaking year of 22 million passengers at ABIA.
The surge in traffic at the airport comes as ABIA considers itself officially recovered from the pandemic's impact, an airport spokesperson ABIA Public Information Specialist Bailey Grimmett told Austonia. Additionally, the population growth in Central Texas and more service offered from ABIA has meant more people at the airport, she said. However, it has come under fire for increasingly long wait times at TSA and not having enough parking.
Flying soon? Here’s how to prepare for a busy airport this summer.
Arrive hours early for your flight, especially if it's in the morning
Summer travel lines in September 2021. (Austonia)
The busiest passenger traffic days in summer 2021 were Thursdays, Fridays, Sundays and Mondays, according to a release but each day of the week is expected to see increased traffic this summer. Lines tend to be longest before 8 a.m. and sometimes mid-morning hours.
Grimmett told Austonia the average person should arrive at the airport two-and-a-half hours before boarding time for domestic flights or three hours early for international flights. You might want to tack on extra time if…
- You need to park or are returning a rental.
- You’re traveling with a big group, children or those who require assistance.
- You’re checking in baggage.
Familiarize yourself with TSA requirements
The worst thing while traveling is getting stuck in security and having to repack all of your belongings. If you’re traveling with a carry-on of toiletries, medication or food, double-check with TSA.gov if you’re not sure.Security screening checkpoints open at 3 a.m. and Grimmett said don’t hesitate to ask a staff member if you need help. Faster screening is available by applying for TSA PreCheck or Clear screening for an extra fee.
Rather wait for the rush to die down?
Grimmett said to expect near-constant high traffic through August, when students return to school and tourist season ends. The lull is short-lived though—ABIA typically sees another travel uptick in October for events like F1 and ACL Festival.
Once you’re inside, refer to our complete guide to ABIA for a look at the amenities.
By Kali Bramble
Calls for firmer regulation of the dockless scooters, mopeds and e-bikes scattered about the city may hit the desks of City Council in coming months, as a recommendation from the Downtown Commission makes its way to the agenda.
The recommendation proposes stricter requirements for providers to remove devices blocking sidewalks, crosswalks and other rights of way and increase fees for subsequently impounded vehicles. The proposal also calls for implementing a ticketing system for riders who violate municipal traffic code or state law.
Since 2018, the steady influx of electronic scooters has left Austin’s Transportation Department scrambling to integrate the devices into city infrastructure. As of this year, companies Bird, Lime, LINK, and Wheels collectively operate a total of 14,100 micromobility devices, many of which are concentrated in Austin’s urban core.
“I walked out of my office at Sixth and Congress today at noon and counted 65 scooters laying on their side,” Texas Monthly founder Michael Levy said in a public comment. “It looks like a war zone.”
Critics of the exploding scooter market cite incidents of devices blocking pedestrian walkways for days on end. Under the commission’s proposal, improperly discarded devices would be subject to impounding within two hours, with the time limit reduced to one hour in the downtown area. A $100 release fee along with a $5 per day storage fee would go toward investment in infrastructure solutions, such as augmenting the 25 existing parking corrals throughout the city.
Detractors also cite episodes of reckless and inebriated scooter riders as an increasing public health problem. While restrictions like in-app speed reduction technology have sought to mitigate such incidents, emergency room workers anecdotally report an alarming number of scooter-related injuries, especially on weekends. Preliminary data from Austin Public Health supports such claims, though it is still a challenge to quantify.
Micromobility advocates, on the other hand, argue that scooters provide an important service to those navigating Austin’s patchwork public transportation system. The Transportation Department considers such short-distance mobility options another solution in its toolbox to combat the city’s over-reliance on cars.
Still, scooter skeptics wonder if these benefits outweigh consequences. Levy noted that cities like San Diego have responded very differently to the burgeoning industry, instituting strict regulations and penalties that have reduced the presence of scooters without banning them entirely.
The Downtown Commission’s recommendation proposes citations for scooter riders violating municipal parking and traffic laws amounting to $100 for first-time offenders, followed by $250 for subsequent offenses. The proposal would also ban scooter-riding on a number of highly trafficked sidewalks, though these remain unspecified.
The commission hopes such tools could work alongside efforts by the Transportation Department to ramp up enforcement, including the recent establishment of 10 full-time mobility service officer positions charged with regulating scooter use. Increased revenue from licensing fees and ticketing could also serve to finance infrastructure solutions.
“It’s shocking to me that we currently only get around $1 million a year out of these fees,” Commissioner Mike Lavigne said. “I did some rough math … and figure we’ve maybe gotten $6 million since this thing started. It seems to me like we could be getting a whole lot more to invest in making it more sustainable, like more docking stations and corrals, so there’s somewhere for these scooters to go.”