Should people have a right to sleep on city streets? Texas joins national battle over urban homeless crisis.
On a single night in 2019, roughly 568,000 people were experiencing homelessness in the United States.
AUSTIN — Christopher Paul hasn’t felt a police officer tapping at his foot in more than a month — the tap, tap, tap that usually meant he was about to get another citation that he was never going to pay.
Living on the streets for five years after he lost his graphic-design job, Paul has been having undisturbed nights since the City Council and mayor eased restrictions on “public camping” this summer, a move that liberal lawmakers billed as a humane and pragmatic reform of the criminal-justice system. But the change has drawn the ire of Republicans and local business owners who decry it as a threat to public safety and the local economy, exposing a partisan clash over how to manage poverty and affordable housing in America’s cities.
Since Austin’s public-camping ban was relaxed, “people can sleep much better in the open, and they are a lot safer than somewhere hiding in a back alley,” said Paul, who estimates that he received 20 citations for illegal camping before the rule change went into effect July 1.
But as Paul, 50, sprawled out shirtless on the sidewalk on a 100-degree day, shop owner Craig Staley stood a few feet away on Congress Avenue reconsidering his party affiliation.
“I got two emails last month from customers who said, ‘I can’t go to your store anymore because it smells like urine,’” said Staley, who operates Royal Blue Grocery. “I am a Democrat at heart; I have been in Austin, Texas, for over 30 years. But I am telling you, I am feeling a lot more red these days when it comes to my business.”
With an estimated 2,200 homeless adults sleeping on sidewalks and in makeshift tent cities, Austin has become the latest flash point in the national debate over whether homeless residents have a constitutional right to sleep on public streets, particularly in cities grappling with overcrowded shelters.
As a legal matter, the issue could reach the U.S. Supreme Court. The city of Boise, Idaho, plans to appeal a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which applies in nine Western states. The ruling determined that criminalizing public sleeping is unconstitutional when there is inadequate shelter space.
Meanwhile, Republicans have made the nation’s growing homeless population a political weapon, characterizing it as a failure of liberal policies.
“Look at Los Angeles with the tents and the horrible, horrible conditions,” President Trump said at a Cincinnati rally this month. “Look at San Francisco; look at some of your other cities.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), when asked about Trump’s recent comments, said that Democratic policies have fueled the economic resurgence of U.S. cities that has caused a short-term increase in homelessness. California is home to nearly half of the nation’s homeless people who do not use shelters, according to federal data.
“We don’t need [the president’s] megaphone to tell us we have challenges,” said Newsom, adding that California is spending $1.7 billion to address housing affordability.
In Austin, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has threatened to push the GOP-dominated Texas legislature to pass a law overriding Austin’s public-camping action. The Travis County Republican Party has organized a petition drive calling for the policy to be rescinded, and local party leaders are trying to put it on the ballot next spring.
“They thought it would be compassionate and not a big deal, but it has been an absolute disaster for this city,” said Matt Mackowiak, chairman of the county party. “This is our best example of [liberal] overreach, so we have been very strategic focusing on this issue.”
But Austin officials are refusing to back down, saying it’s not practical to effectively criminalize homelessness.
“When you move these people, they don’t disappear. They just go somewhere else,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler (D). “The real answer is not just moving people from there to over there and back again. The real answer is giving them the services they need.”
Previously, the city prohibited “sitting or lying down on public sidewalks or sleeping outdoors” in downtown Austin, where an influx of well-paid workers has driven up the cost of housing. Between 2014 and 2016, Austin police issued 18,000 citations for rule violations, which cost as much as $500 with court fees, though many violators received only community service hours.
But those cited didn’t show up for court 90 percent of the time, a 2017 city auditor’s report found, and nearly three-quarters of the citations led to an arrest warrant.
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Concerned that those criminal records made it even harder for homeless people to find jobs and housing, the Austin City Council amended the ordinance to allow loitering if an individual is not posing a threat to the “health or safety of another person or themselves” or “impeding the reasonable use of a public area.” Overnight camping is still prohibited in city parks and at city hall.
“We basically said, if someone is poor, and they have nowhere to sleep, and they are not endangering or blocking anyone, how can we say that is wrong?” said Gregorio “Greg” Casar, a council member who pushed to ease the rules.
Alvin Sanderson, who has been living on Austin streets since he was released from prison in 2014, thinks the new approach is saving lives. After he received two citations for public camping, Sanderson slept in drainage ditches to avoid the police until, one night in 2018, he was awakened by a thunderous wall of water that crashed down the creek bed during a flash flood.
“The water hit my back and I stood up and it just washed me off my feet,” said Sanderson, 64, who was swept downstream.
Sanderson was rescued, but his story helped convince Austin lawmakers that they needed to bring homelessness out of the shadows.
Now, on some mornings, dozens of homeless people are sleeping on sidewalks in the city’s well-known East Sixth Street nightlife district. A messy encampment has been erected near a mural honoring two Texas music legends, Janis Joplin and Willie Nelson.
That has sparked intense backlash from Austin business owners along the corridor.
“We hear it from our guests that walk into the restaurant and say, ‘My God, what has happened to Austin?’” said Gary Manley, owner of the Iron Cactus Mexican Restaurant, Grill and Margarita Bar.
There were about 553,000 homeless people in the United States last year, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and 35 percent of them were not sleeping in shelters. It was the second consecutive annual increase in homelessness, a trend being driven by single adults, the report noted.
The debate over camping bans triggered a far-reaching federal lawsuit in Boise, where the ban was ruled a violation of the constitutional right against “cruel and unusual punishment,” because sleep is “biologically essential.”
Theane Evangelis, an attorney for the city of Boise, said courts should not “usurp” the role of local governments in regulating public health and safety, noting that homeless camps in Los Angeles and elsewhere have been battling outbreaks of disease.
“We need to keep control over those issues in local communities because they are very complex problems, and constitutionalizing the issue ties the hands of cities and states to address this,” Evangelis said. She is partnering with attorney Theodore Olson, who argued the Supreme Court case that mandated same-sex marriage nationwide.
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On a recent morning in Austin, Curtis Underwood, 49, was sitting along Sixth Street with a bloody nose. He said he suffers from epilepsy and had just been to a local social service agency searching for housing but was turned away.
“They said there is a waiting list of at least six months,” Underwood said. “I guess I need to get a job, but the rent is so expensive because all the people from California are moving here.”
The wait list for affordable housing is about three years, said Adler, the city’s mayor. Austin is planning to spend $30 million to build more, but Adler notes that state funding has been stagnant — one reason he’s outraged over the governor’s opposition to Austin’s public-camping action.
The day after the relaxed rules took effect, Abbott retweeted a photograph of a car crash and implied that a homeless person caused it by running into traffic.
“Look at this insanity caused by Austin’s reckless homeless policy,” Abbott wrote.
Austin police later told local news media that there was no evidence a pedestrian caused the crash.
Abbott did not respond to requests for comment.
But even some homeless people in Austin question whether the rules are too lenient.
“Everyone now has a sense of entitlement, and now things are beyond out of control,” said Ambra Hall, 38, a homeless woman who was sitting in a camp while five men were passed out at her feet after smoking synthetic cannabinoids. “It went from one extreme to another, from criminalizing people for not having a home, to this.”
Drug use and crime in some homeless camps has become fodder for Republican politicians in Texas and nationally. In Washington, state Sen. Phil Fortunato announced that he will run for governor next year on a platform that includes removing the “criminal homeless” from the streets by incarcerating them for even minor crimes.
“Everyone wants to address it with kid gloves,” Fortunato said. “You have got to get them off the streets.”
Republicans think they have the upper hand, noting that Denver’s “Right to Survive” measure, which would have allowed people to sleep in tents or cars in public, was voted down by 82 percent of voters this spring.
In Austin, however, views about the camping rules may be less decisive.
Homeless residents “have nowhere else to go,” said Michael Sherman, 40, a graphic designer who moved to Austin four years ago from Fairfax, Va. “So it doesn’t bother me if they are just lying around.”
Even with rising minimum wages and a booming economy, there is nowhere in the U.S. someone working a full-time minimum-wage job could afford a two-bedroom apartment. And the low-wage workforce is projected to increase over the next decade.