Voters in this deeply liberal city overwhelmingly approved a proposal last week to reinstate a ban on camping in public places, dealing a harsh rebuke to Mayor
and his fellow Democrats. It turns out there’s a limit to what even the most progressive electorate will tolerate.
The vote came amid a homelessness crisis in the city caused almost entirely by Mr. Adler and the Austin City Council’s 2019 decision to rescind a 23-year-old ordinance that prohibited camping in public places such as sidewalks, city parks and highway medians, as well as ordinances against panhandling and sitting or lying down in public. The predictable result was the emergence of San Francisco-style homeless encampments all over the city, especially downtown, which was soon inundated with aggressive panhandling, public intoxication and debris-strewn tent cities.
At the time, Mr. Adler said the answer to Austin’s homelessness problem wasn’t to arrest people for sleeping on the streets, an approach he called “ineffective and inconsistent with the character of this city.” He offered more publicly funded housing and services for the homeless, following the “Housing First” policy mantra of West Coast cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle. “We need places where homeless folks can be safe and surrounded by social workers and others getting them the help and support they need,” Mr. Adler said.
And he meant it. Along with the repeal of the camping ban, Mr. Adler and the all-Democrat city council appropriated more than $73 million for homeless-related services in 2020, a record for the city. It was so much money that the city had trouble spending it. By December Austin had doled out only 57%, or $42.3 million, which still amounted to tens of thousands of dollars per homeless person. Yet the problem kept getting worse.
The issue came to a head in January 2020, when a homeless man attacked employees at a restaurant on a busy South Austin street on a weekday morning, stabbing one man to death and sending another to the hospital. The killing prompted Gov. Greg Abbott to weigh in, blaming Austin’s political leaders for the violence and threatening state action.
In response to growing frustration and outrage from business owners and residents,
an Austin-based political consultant and the Travis County Republican Party chairman, co-founded a group called Save Austin Now, whose goal was to gather enough signatures to get a reinstatement of the camping ban on a citywide ballot. This would be the first chance Austin residents had weigh in on the issue.
City Hall fought the group’s efforts, throwing out enough petition signatures to keep the measure off the ballot last year. Save Austin Now sued and came back with another petition, successfully getting the issue onto this year’s ballot as Proposition B.
The city wasn’t done fighting. Save Austin Now had to sue again when City Council adopted ballot language that intentionally distorted the meaning of Proposition B, making it seem overbroad. In March, the Texas Supreme Court ruled against the city, forcing a change to the ballot language.
When it came time for voting, Mr. Adler and Councilman Greg Casar, who initially sponsored the repeal of the camping ban, campaigned hard against the measure, speaking at a spuriously named “Homes Not Handcuffs” rally on the University of Texas campus.
amplified the mischaracterization, tweeting, “The answer to homelessness is not camping nor is it criminalizing those experiencing homelessness.”
Mr. Adler, who briefly became a national laughingstock in December when he was caught urging Austinites to remain at home because of the pandemic while he was vacationing with his family in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, vilified supporters of Proposition B as heartless and . . . Republican. “The vote count should be representative of the community. So far, those voting early are not. They’re much, much older and much, much more Republican,” he tweeted.
Turns out that’s not right. Among early voters with a primary voting record, only about 20% were Republicans while a solid majority were Democrats. By some estimates, a full three-quarters of early voters were Democrats, as you might expect in a city that voted 72% to 27% for
Proposition B passed by a vote of 57% to 43%, which means a lot of Democrats supported it. And no wonder. The effects of legalizing homeless encampments in Austin have been what any reasonable person might expect: a spike in violent crime among the homeless, including a rise in the number of homeless victims of violent crime, along with all the other attendant problems of homeless encampments like substance abuse and public intoxication.
While Austin’s homeless population no doubt increased last year because of the pandemic, the legalization of public camping prompted many of the homeless to leave shelters that often require sobriety. They went instead to makeshift encampments where police wouldn’t bother them. Instead of creating “places where homeless folks can be safe” and get the help they need, as Mr. Adler had hoped, the city’s policy put those people in danger and made things worse.
By encouraging these encampments at the expense of residents, neighborhoods, and businesses—and at the expense of the homeless who were left to fend for themselves in the encampments—Mr. Adler and the city council managed to create a rare bipartisan issue in a woke one-party town. Proposition B’s passage wasn’t about party politics, it was about good governance, and on that count Austin’s leaders failed in spectacular fashion.
Mr. Davidson is political editor at the Federalist.
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