Proposition B is garnering a lot of attention and controversy ahead of Austin’s May 1 special election. The ballot initiative would prohibit camping, sitting, lying down, or sleeping on public sidewalks around The University of Texas and downtown Austin. In 2019, the Austin City Council rescinded bans on these activities. Save Austin Now, a group founded by Travis County Republican Party chairman Matt Mackowiak, failed to meet the 20,000 signature threshold required to get this initiative on the ballot in 2020. This year, the group gathered a sufficient amount of signatures — albeit via deceptive tactics. For example, multiple UT students were misled into signing the petition by paid canvassers. Mackowiak claims his support for reinstating the camping ban stems from a place of compassion for the homeless and concern for public safety, yet he fails to mention the most empirically effective strategy for achieving these goals — “Housing First” initiatives.
ACCESSIBILITY OF RESOURCES
A 2017 report commissioned by the Office of the City Auditor confirmed that criminalization ordinances are counterproductive in connecting the homeless to resources. The report revealed that between 2014 and 2016, police wrote 18,000 citations for panhandling, camping, and sitting or lying in prohibited downtown areas. Many of the individuals issued these citations missed their court date. This absence frequently resulted in an active arrest warrant — which hinders a homeless individual’s ability to find or maintain stable housing and employment. Violation of these ordinances was a Class C misdemeanor accompanied by up to a $500 fine. Imposing financial penalties on homeless populations only amplifies the precarity of their situation. The idea behind these ordinances might stem from a desire to more effectively connect unhoused individuals to vital resources. However, even this charitable interpretation does not stand up to scrutiny. The City Auditor’s report also acknowledged that the Downtown Austin Community Court (DACC) lacks the institutional capacity to connect all ordinance violators with case management services. Such punitive measures may spur greater distrust among the city’s homeless population. In 2014, 25 percent of cited individuals rejected case management services. Additionally, individual cases not addressed by DACC are referred to the Austin Municipal Court. The Municipal Court does not offer these services, ensuring a purely disciplinary or inconsequential outcome for defendants.
Important services provided by advocacy and nonprofit coalitions will be hampered by logistical constraints if homeless criminalization is revived. These groups had an easier time distributing hygiene and food supplies during Austin’s 2020 Point in Time Count (conducted by Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), which tracks and reports data on the city’s homeless population) due to decriminalization efforts. The City of Austin, alongside these groups, launched the Eating Apart Together (EAT) initiative, which delivered more than 100,000 meals to encampments and shelters during the first four months of the pandemic.
Reverting to ineffective policies to tackle homelessness is irrational and exacerbates the issue that groups like Save Austin Now posit to solve. In the long run, the most fruitful and financially prudent way to address homelessness is to invest in affordable housing.
SUCCESS OF HOUSING FIRST INITIATIVES
In New York City, permanent supportive housing programs reduced state and city correctional expenses by 55 percent. From 2005 to 2015, Utah lowered chronic homelessness by 91 percent. The state’s Housing First initiative prioritizes getting homeless people into homes before providing them with other services. The idea was that other problems were irrelevant unless the root of the issue — lack of housing — was addressed. Individuals are expected to pay either 30 percent of their income or $50 a month (whichever poses less of a financial burden) to reside in the homes. Nationwide, the public health care and corrections savings of instituting Housing First programs ranges from $9,000 to $15,000 per person annually at the local level.
Studies of major metropolitan areas such as Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver have demonstrated that homeless communities are not correlated with an uptick in crime. Furthermore, Housing First programs reduce crime rates. The homeless are some of the biggest beneficiaries of these public safety effects since they are disproportionately the victims of violent crime. In one study spanning five American cities, almost 50 percent of homeless adults identified themselves as a victim of violent crime.
Luckily, Austin’s elected officials and residents have expressed support for affordable housing initiatives. In 2018, a historic $250 million affordable housing bond passed with 73 percent voter approval. This proposal called for the construction of 300 housing units.
In 2019, the Austin City Council approved the conversion of a hotel into 81 housing units for the homeless. In September 2020, the city rented 120 hotel guest rooms as emergency housing for those experiencing homelessness. The success of these acquisitions spurred the council’s decision to expand the program. Thus far into 2021, the Austin City Council has announced plans to transition two hotels into 148 permanent supportive housing units. The hotel purchases will be financed by a mix of general obligation bonds and $6.5 million of recurring funds reallocated from the police department’s budget.
Despite these promising policies, Austin’s per capita homelessness has remained constant over the past decade. Expanding on initiatives that prioritize housing instead of unnecessarily punitive measures is key to ameliorating this trend.