Austin’s national renown for its live music has been all but supplanted by the notoriety for its homeless situation — featuring a nebulous inverse relationship between music venues still operating and tent encampments dotting the roadside.
The city’s camping and laying ordinance rescission of July 2019 created an impassioned reaction from Austin citizens across the political spectrum. But the city council has remained largely resolute behind its policy.
Reinstatement of the camping ban will appear before voters in May, but it will effectively become a formality if state Republicans have their way.
Two bills to explicitly ban public camping statewide have been filed. Rep. Giovanni Capriglione’s (R-Southlake) House Bill 1925 and Sens. Dawn Buckingham (R-Lakeway), Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), and Charles Schwertner’s (R-Georgetown) Senate Bill 987.
“A person commits an offense,” the identical bills read, “if the person intentionally or knowingly camps in a public place without the consent of the officer or agency having the legal duty or authority to manage the public place.”
It establishes a Class C misdemeanor for violation of the law, which is a fine-only charge.
The bill carves out the ability of a state agency to establish designated camping areas, like Camp R.A.T.T. located near the Highway 183-Ben White Boulevard intersection.
It would also explicitly prohibit contradictory local orders, stating, “A local entity may not adopt or enforce a policy under which the entity prohibits or discourages the enforcement of any public camping ban.”
The law specifically instructs the Office of the Attorney General to bring action against a locality violating that provision. Should a court find a locality in violation of that prohibition, they will be denied state grant funds for the following fiscal year. Local entities within an offending political subdivision cannot have their grant funds withheld, it further stipulates.
Capriglione said of his legislation, “We must prioritize the well-being of those experiencing homelessness [and] provide resources to re-enter the workforce [and] communities.”
“When cities like Austin refuse to act on the homeless camping situation that continues to get worse and jeopardizes the safety of its citizens,” Buckingham said in a release, “the state has a duty to step into protect its people.”
“Too many times have we seen innocent bystanders harassed, attacked, and even assaulted by those publicly camping in our streets, and the time has come to finally put an end to this lawless charade,” she concluded.
An anti-public camping group, Save Austin Now, submitted 26,000 signatures to place the reinstatement on the May ballot.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler backtracked slightly on the city’s policy once it became clear the petition effort would be successful, stating it “is not working.”
Governor Greg Abbott has admonished the city for its policy and made a camping prohibition part of his legislative priorities.
The lax camping policy is one of numerous initiatives advanced by the city council that has spurred a significant recoil in a city whose progressive uniformity has become as distinct as the weirdness it espouses.