On Wednesday, Gov. Greg Abbott sent a letter to Austin Mayor Steve Adler, calling on the city to “demonstrate consequential improvement in the Austin homelessness crisis,” or the state will step in on Nov. 1.
The Austin City Council voted in June to relax ordinances that restricted sitting, lying down or camping in public. The new rules allow people to do so as long as their actions are not hazardous to themselves or others. While Adler and many city council members believe lifting these ordinances decriminalized the actions of many homeless people, some groups are raising safety concerns.
Abbott expressed those concerns in his letter, emphasizing that feces and used needles have reportedly accumulated in public spaces in the city.
Adler says the rule changes that went into effect in June have not worsened conditions in areas where people experiencing homelessness gather.
“We don’t have any more people that are defecating in public places today than we had six months ago,” Adler says. “If we’re going to fix this, and I believe that we can, we need to get these people off the streets out of public spaces and into housing.”
Adler says he is encouraged by Abbott’s expressed interest because it indicates the homelessness issue will become a state priority. He also empathizes with Abbott’s concern, as a resident of Austin.
“This is where he lives,” Adler says. “I understand the kind of angst and concern, we all have it in this city. No one wants anyone camping anywhere. The goal is to get to a place where we don’t allow it anywhere.”
Because homelessness is an issue in other urban areas in Texas, Adler hopes that the state’s involvement will lead to more collaboration between cities. He points out that other cities receive greater funding than Austin does from the federal Housing and Urban Development department, or HUD.
“My hope is that we can show and demonstrate to the governor and to the other cities in Texas that each of us are doing things that are helping,” Adler says. “…Houston’s got some pretty good results, but they’re up to now getting $40 million a year from HUD … certainly significantly more than what Austin gets.”
In his letter, Abbott mentioned several state agencies that could become involved with Austin’s homelessness issue, including the Department of State Health Services and the Department of Public Safety. But it is unclear how these agencies would help. Adler suggests providing improved health and social services to people who are homeless.
“The state has the capacity to help with mental illness clinics, and centers substance abuse, Adler says. “The state has the ability … to fund housing, social services and wrap-around support that’s necessary to get these folks off the streets.”
Adler says that he invited Abbott’s staff to join groups in Austin that are working on homelessness. He says the governor’s office has yet to respond.
Written by Antonio Cueto.