As Austin navigates its homelessness crisis, city voters will decide starting Monday whether to reinstate a ban on sitting, lying and camping in certain areas of the city. Proposition B has drawn impassioned support and opposition and is perhaps the most contentious item on the May 1 ballot.
Austonia sought out clear and brief editorials from either side of the debate. Arguing in favor of Prop B is Cleo Petricek, a Democrat and co-founder, along with Travis County GOP Chairperson Matt Mackowiak, of the Save Austin Now political action committee, which has led the charge to reinstate the camping ban. Opponent Emily Seales is a licensed clinical social worker and advocate with over 20 years of experience working and volunteering in homeless services in Austin and around the country. She is currently on staff at the Sunrise Homeless Navigation Center and is board co-chair of Open Door.
Editor's note: These submissions are the unedited views of their authors. Claims made have not been fact-checked to give the proponent and opponent a chance to speak their minds freely.
Homeless residents have also set up tents along Cesar Chavez Street near Buford Tower, which recently caught fire after a blaze spread from the camp. (Emma Freer)
Pro: Voting yes on Prop B sends a message to council that voters' voices and real solutions are paramount
In June 2019, the Austin City Council rescinded regulations on camping in public spaces. They did so without any serious public discussion and in fact appeared to actively avoid serious scrutiny. The resulting chaos is clear for all to see. Parks and playgrounds impacted by illicit behavior, lewd activities in public, trash strewn in waterways and public spaces, and most critically, assaults on the public and on other homeless individuals.
It is obvious that the homeless are not helped by this misadventure. Vulnerable women and youth in these camps are abused, mentally ill individuals are not served and there is no incentive for substance abusers to seek help.
Proponents of this mess have put forward no credible plan for any short term housing that restores safety—instead they talk about abstract housing concepts that even they acknowledge will take years to develop. This is the mark of narrowly focused activism, not what citizens should expect from elected leaders who promise to serve their communities. At every turn, the proponents of this chaos have demonstrated that they are not capable of fully considering the needs of diverse communities and proposing workable solutions. Instead they simply double down on trying to tell Austin that anything other than their chaos is heartless and inhumane. This is intellectually lazy, and Austin should demand better.
The chaos created by the City Council has resulted in a public outcry culminating in the citizens demanding to be heard by direct ballot. This demand is across the political and economic spectrum. As a co-founder of the Save Austin Now PAC and a lifelong Democrat, I have seen the diversity of people raising their voices in concern for our city.
It's time we turn this situation around and vote yes on Prop B. It sends a clear message to the council that the citizens of Austin must be heard as we work toward real solutions. There are successful models to learn from and some in our own state. But it all starts with voting yes on Prop B starting April 19.
A homeless residents sleeps in the middle of a bike scavenging operation based at a camp under the South Austin overpass. (Jordan Vonderhaar)
Con: Prop B blames homeless individuals rather than providing solutions to societal problems
Austin's homeless population needs help, but Prop B doesn't do anything to solve our city's problems. It simply tells people who are experiencing homelessness that they cannot exist, visibly, in public space. I, too, am worried about the encampments. They are evidence that our strategies to help people return to housing aren't sufficient. But telling people "You can't stay here" without giving them alternatives isn't a solution.
The reason so many people are experiencing homelessness is that it takes a long time to get into housing, even when you do everything right. Shelters are at capacity, we lack deeply affordable housing, landlords can refuse housing vouchers, and housing programs are full.
As a case study, I want to tell you about "Bill," whom I met two years ago. Bill was a veteran, father, former truck driver and person of faith. He was also homeless and unsheltered. Bill had recently suffered a series of strokes and was desperate for both disability income and housing.
Bill and I worked together every single week for 17 months. He eventually was awarded disability and moved into his own apartment.
Bill's situation is typical of hundreds of people who are stymied by our complicated processes and lack of housing. Prop B would not add resources for people like Bill. Read the ballot language. Because Prop B bans "camping," people would have to move around constantly to avoid being cited. All that moving around takes time and energy. People like Bill would have a harder time keeping their appointments with case managers. Unpaid fines from citations build a criminal record—and landlords can choose not to rent to someone with a record. So punishing people for not having housing makes it even harder to get housing. Prop B hurts, not helps.
In this election, Austinites have a choice to criminalize people like Bill or to work toward solutions. Prop B places the blame on individuals rather than recognizing homelessness as a failure of society.Prop B is an inhumane and wrong response. Oppose Prop B, and let's focus on solutions. Learn more here.
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Nathan Ryan is the CEO of Austin-based consulting firm Blue Sky Partners, and a commissioner on Austin's Economic Prosperity Commission. As a commissioner, he contributes to strategy related to job creation and construction in the city. Views are his alone and do not reflect the views of Austonia.
Austin is in the middle of a years-long debate about homelessness. Right now, some are arguing that we should go back to the ban we had in place in early 2019 that made camping, sitting, lying and panhandling punishable by fine or jail. That response greatly oversimplifies the challenge we're dealing with.
Austin doesn't need a ban, it needs a plan.
Homelessness is at least four crises in one:
- An economic crisis
- A housing crisis
- A mental health and/or substance abuse crisis
- And a racial equity crisis
If we're going to meaningfully reduce homelessness, we need to acknowledge that it's not going to be as simple as reinstating a ban. We also deserve to know where we are in this process, which is why we're going to have to demand that Austin City Council put together a comprehensive plan with benchmarks and a timeline so progress can be reported on frequently.
That being said, I have some ideas.
Financial Security: According to a Federal Reserve report from 2018, nearly 40% of Americans wouldn't be able to cover a surprise $400 bill. Layoffs due to the COVID-19 pandemic have certainly made the economic situation more dire for many Americans and has likely pushed many to the brink of homelessness. To address this, Austin City Council should make direct cash assistance programs like 2020's Relief in a State of Emergency (RISE) Fund permanent. We should also look at how we can expand economic assistance related to utility bills through Austin Energy and Austin Water.
Housing: Austin is an incredible city, which is why more than 160 new people move here per day. In just the last year, the average cost of a home in Austin has gone up 14%, to $448,406. The reason housing prices are going up so drastically is simple: we don't have enough housing supply to meet demand. Because Texas is a property tax-based state, rising property values make it more likely that people will be pushed out of their homes—and the lack of supply means it's harder to house individuals experiencing homelessness. That's why Austin City Council should continue to invest in Permanent Supportive Housing like hotels and consider creating city-sanctioned encampments with wraparound support services. But on housing, the single most important thing Council could do is to finish the job they started with CodeNEXT to upzone Austin and allow all types of housing to be built all over the city. Upzoning Austin will allow our supply to keep up with demand.
Mental Health: According to Johns Hopkins, an estimated 26% of Americans over the age of 18 suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder. Depression and anxiety are most common, but things like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are relatively common, too. Substance abuse often coexists alongside mental health issues, and both are exacerbated by economic stress, anxiety, and homelessness. Just last week, Austin announced that its 911 call script now includes mental health as a requested emergency service. That's an important start. But any plan to address homelessness needs to include more consistent access to mental health care and better case management as well. One big step Austin could take is to help each of Austin's many homeless service organizations develop a coordinated database so it's clear where the service gaps are so they can be met. We have too much data in too many different places.
Racial Equity: Lastly, Austin has a history of segregation and systemic racism that continues to rear its ugly head. This is true when it comes to homelessness, too: in Austin, even though Black Austinites represent 7.6% percent of our population, they represent more than one-third of our homeless population. As regards criminal justice, Black and brown Austinites are more likely to be stopped, searched and cited by law enforcement than white/Caucasian residents like me.
These crises compound—it's far too easy to see how one can lead to the other, or one slip up could cause someone to become unhoused. I can understand and empathize with public safety concerns on this issue. Everybody should feel safe and everybody should be safe in Austin, Texas.
But this is why it's so important that we don't simply knee-jerk react our way back to a policy that criminalizes homelessness.
Austin needs a comprehensive plan to address the economic, housing, mental health and racial equity crises that undergird this Gordian knot of a challenge. Putting that plan together is going to require City Council to make some unpopular decisions. It's also going to require that we, as residents of Austin, continue to be the compassionate and helpful people I know we are.
Austin City Council did not create this problem, but they hold the keys to fix it.
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Editor's Note: Joah Spearman is the founder and CEO of Localeur, a local travel startup that shares local recommendations in more than 185 cities around the world. He recently published "An Open Letter to a New Austinite," a guide on what a newcomer needs to know about Austin. The following is his personal response to the negative op-ed published by Californian Brett Alder in Business Insider reviewing his stay in Austin. Views are his alone and do not reflect the views of Austonia.
Yes, I've read it. I rolled my eyes repeatedly as person after person brought a certain Business Insider article to my attention last week. Heavy sigh.
For context, I spent much of my day on Jan. 20 feeling myself shed pounds of anxiety, fear and uncertainty from the last four years under Donald Trump. Four years in which access to healthcare, Black lives, the environment, the media, progressive policies, science and truth appeared to be under attack at all times–so forgive me for enjoying the moment. A moment that soon passed as I began seeing a Business Insider article about a California man regretting his move to Austin on my Twitter feed.
I'd never heard of Brett Alder. I looked him up on Medium and LinkedIn to try to see if I'd come across him, but nope. Couldn't tell him from Adam. For all intents and purposes, I realized Business Insider likely re-published this random man's blog from 2016 now, on the same day as inauguration in 2021, because he fit the profile of who most people assume is making or considering the popular move from California to Austin: a white man in the tech industry who wants lower taxes and can afford to buy a house.
Considering Austin seems to be the biggest winner of the pandemic from a tech industry and growth standpoint, I can imagine the editor of Business Insider thinking of all the clicks they'd get by pissing off the residents of the fastest-growing city in America and giving San Franciscans a rare thing to cheer about amid some of the country's most strict COVID-19 restrictions and constant headlines about companies and residents fleeing their city.
So, there it was, an article in a major business outlet, skewering my beloved city. And just a week or so after my own "Open Letter to New Austinites" had run in Inc. Magazine albeit with a much different tone. I took a moment before considering if Alder's piece merited a response.
Alder had lamented the weather, the people, the lack of green spaces, and the public schools among other issues he found after moving from San Diego to Austin, despite doubling his house size for the same price and forgoing California's notorious income taxes. For the day or two after inauguration, it felt like every other message I received—a DM on Instagram or Twitter, a text or an email—was someone sending the article. A response was inevitable.
But, after this past weekend, I've realized I really don't need to offer up a rebuttal to the points Alder made about his experience in Austin. It may pain you to hear this, but you shouldn't either. What one random man from California who works in tech thinks about Austin should not get this much attention, and the fact that it did speaks more to our unfortunate assumptions about whose voices are worth listening to and worthy of elevation via a national media outlet (an entire presidential cycle later) than how we should feel about our chosen city.
We should be far more interested in the viewpoints of a longtime Austinite priced out of the East Side and now living in Pflugerville, the result of gentrification and neglectful zoning. We should consider the opinions of Austinites whom moved to San Antonio or Houston to experience a city with more Black or Hispanic inclusion; something Austin must improve. We should wholeheartedly learn from women in Austin's tech scene who've felt excluded, people of color who've launched startups only to be underfunded, young people at A.I.S.D. public schools who lack the resources of their peers at Eanes I.S.D. We should listen to working musicians and service industry professionals trying to make a living and stay close to Downtown in a city where rent prices continue to rise, housing supply remains low, and the income divide in our city grows by the day.
Simply put, Austin has real issues, and these issues require we listen to the right voices. Simultaneously, Austin has real benefits for a newcomer, especially one from California where more space, lower income taxes, a "buy local" mentality and relative affordability are just a few of the pros. I can imagine the editor of Business Insider spent little time speaking to many former Californians still living in Austin because that would have hurt the effectiveness of their (successful) clickbait initiative.
But listening (and, worse, responding point-by-point) to a random guy in tech from California who bought a 4,000-square foot home, got lost at Enchanted Rock, didn't seem to appreciate great food and live music, struggled to make friends, and generally failed to make the most of a city that has so much to offer? Miss me with that.
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