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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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Texas voters are split on whether Gov. Greg Abbott should run for a third term and whether Matthew McConaughey should run at all. But Democrats are clear: they want to see Beto O'Rourke on the ballot.
These are the findings of a Quinnipiac University poll of registered voters released this week.
Abbott and McConaughey received the highest favorability ratings of the elected officials, candidates and potential candidates, according to the Quinnipiac poll.
- Abbott: 49%
- McConaughey: 42%
- O'Rourke: 34%
- Former Texas GOP Chair Allen West: 25%
- Former Texas senator and Republican challenger Don Huffines: 8%
Overall, 48% say Abbott does not deserve to be reelected to a third term compared to 46% who say he does. "A Trump favorite in a state that is turning less red in recent election cycles, Abbott has a decent but in no way overwhelming grasp on reelection," Quinnipiac University Polling Analyst Tim Malloy said in a press release.
Abbott, McConaughey and Beto O'Rourke could vie for governor in 2022. (Office of the Texas Governor)
Voters are also divided on Matthew McConaughey, who is reportedly considering a gubernatorial run. Forty-one percent of voters say they would like to see him run, compared to 47% who say they wouldn't.
The poll found that Democrats and Independents favor the Oscar-winning Austinite, whose party affiliation is unclear. Forty-seven percent of Democrats would like to see him run, compared to 43% who wouldn't. Forty-four percent of Independents would, compared to 43% who wouldn't. Republicans, on the other hand, say 60%-29% they would not like to see him run.
Another possible candidate is former U.S. Representative and presidential hopeful Beto O'Rourke, who is also reportedly mulling a bid. Overall voters say 52%-41% they would not like to see him run for governor. But 77% of Democrats and 50% of Independents would, according to the poll.
"McConaughey and O'Rourke may still be on the fence, but their numbers suggest they have the attention of voters," Malloy said in the same release.
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Austinites will soon be able to train like some of Hollywood's biggest stars as F45, a fitness franchise backed by major celebs, like Mark Wahlberg and David Beckham, is on its way to Austin.
F45 listed Austin as the location of its corporate headquarters in a June 21 federal filing—a big shift for the California company. The fitness franchise is preparing for its initial public offering, which will be as an Austin-based company.
F45 will be one of many California companies—Tesla, Oracle and Samsung—that have recently expanded in the Capital City. The company has several famous investors on its side—famed basketball player Earvin "Magic" Johnson and golfer Greg Norman in addition to Wahlberg and Beckham.
The fitness company is opening a 44,000-square-foot headquarters, located at Penn Field on 801 Barton Springs Road, with a lease running through 2029. F45 was one of the early adopters of Austin-based real estate-technology platform AnthemIQ, helping tenants find commercial real estate.
F45 focuses on one-on-one 45-minute workouts, which patrons watch on in-studio displays. With 2,247 franchise agreements spanning across 63 countries, F45 also has offices in Australia and England.
"We believe this flexibility will enable us to capitalize on our estimated long-term global opportunity of over 23,000 studios," the company said in its filing.
The greater Austin area already has 11 F45 locations, which take up 1,600 square feet of space each.
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The staffers are coming! Texas Lege staffers turn to Twitter after special session announcement, defunding
Texas Legislature staff members have taken to social media to raise awareness—and also just air their misfortunes—following the summer special session announcement and their own defunding.
In a game-seven-type move by Texas Democrats, the 87th Texas Legislative session was capped off by a last-minute walkout to avoid a final vote on a bill that would add restrictions to voting.
Needless to say, Gov. Greg Abbott—who cheerleaded the bill throughout the legislative session—was not thrilled.
Not up to date on your Texas Lege drama? Abbott was pointing to when former Texas State Senator Wendy Davis staged a dramatic hours-long filibuster over a 2013 abortion bill, which the public gallery aided. The "story" Abbott is referring to ended with him and other prominent conservatives sweeping the 2014 statewide election and the bill passing in a special session.
According to Abbott, the regular session centered around supporting "hardworking Texans and building a state that is safer, freer, healthier, and more prosperous."
However, the two items deemed at the top of Abbott's wish list for this session—election integrity and bail reform—did not reach his desk at the end of the session, both championed by Abbott to be "must-pass emergency items."
"It is deeply disappointing and concerning for Texans that neither reached my desk," Abbott said in a statement. "Ensuring the integrity of our elections and reforming a broken bail system remain emergencies in Texas, which is why these items, along with other priority items, will be added to the special session agenda."
Abbott said he expected lawmakers to work out their differences prior to the special session and continue to pass other emergency items and priority legislation.
So, everything is cool, right? No worries?
Hours before the no vote, as the clock ran out on the bill that he championed, Abbott tweeted that he would veto funding for the entire state legislative branch. The decision would impact not only Texas lawmakers but their staff and aides. "No pay for those who abandon their responsibilities," Abbott tweeted May 31.
I will veto Article 10 of the budget passed by the legislature. Article 10 funds the legislative branch. No pay… https://t.co/KNyuNvxP55— Greg Abbott (@Greg Abbott)1622484820.0
With pay, health insurance and other support for staffers on the line, the threats became a reality on June 18 with an official veto of the funds from Abbott.
The veto effectively nixes all funding for the legislative branch.
"Texans don't run from a legislative fight and we don't walk away from an unfinished business," Abbott wrote in the veto. "Funding should not be provided for those who quit their job early, leaving their state with unfinished business and exposing taxpayers to higher costs for an additional legislative session."
However, questions have been brought up over the constitutionality of the veto itself. Section 24 of the Texas Constitution makes not paying members of the legislature illegal.
The special session is set to begin July 8. So, what does this mean for lawmakers, staffers and aides?
No pay, no insurance... and Twitter followers?
The staffers took their final stand on Twitter where they aired their grievances with the situation and asked for followers to increase their footprint.
Meet Jen Ramos, a staff member for Texas State Senator Judith Zaffarini—and also defunded by Abbott.
My name is Jen. I’m one of the #txlege staffers defunded by Greg Abbott. Apparently now I’m supposed to ask for Tw… https://t.co/pteKADP3Hj— Jen Ramos ✨ (@Jen Ramos ✨)1624466531.0
And she's not alone. Use the hashtag #txlege and you'll find other similar messages online, like Camille's and Hector's and more.
My name is Camille, my friends call me Cam or Cammie. I’m one of the #txlege staffers defunded by Greg Abbott. And… https://t.co/mOvcjxTiUL— Camille Lasin (@Camille Lasin)1624474153.0
My name is Hector. I’m one of the #txlege staffers defunded by Greg Abbott and who had to deal with elections stuff… https://t.co/88PINm9KCv— Hector 🏙🤠 (@Hector 🏙🤠)1624466987.0
My name is Jake Salinas. I'm the TX Dem that saved the film industry in TX and broke quorum on SB7 Now our Gov h… https://t.co/PLf9ScA4Ev— Jake Salinas (@Jake Salinas)1624464237.0
It's unclear whether Abbott and other prominent Republican lawmakers will come together with Democrats to overturn the veto and continue providing insurance and regular pay for lawmakers, staffers and aides.