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Ronnie Vara stood at the corner of Austin’s Menchaca Road and W. Ben White Boulevard on a recent chilly evening asking motorists for money with a colorful cardboard sign.
“Please bless me with your generosity and be part of my new miracle,” it read.
The 37-year-old sleeps nearby in a tent underneath State Highway 71. Where she lives and the way she’s trying to make a living both would have been a crime just a year and a half ago. And it could be again if Gov. Greg Abbott or a group of Austin residents get their wish.
But Vara said she can’t imagine what life would be like if the state or Austin voters reinstated bans on camping, panhandling and sitting in public areas that the Austin City Council lifted in 2019.
“How can they criminalize something like this? What choices are there? There’s so many of us and housing is so limited,” she said.
Austin’s housing market has become increasingly less affordable in the last decade, as have most major metropolitan areas in the country, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. For low-income renters, finding an affordable home is especially difficult: 91.2% of Austin households that earn under $15,000 a year spend at least half of their incomes on rent.
Austin officials’ decision to stop criminalizing the behaviors of some homeless people was quickly criticized by Republicans and some residents that are part of a bipartisan group who complained about highly visible homeless encampments, unhealthy conditions in public areas and aggressive panhandling. Homeless advocates and city officials agree that allowing homeless residents to sleep in public places has increased the visibility of people without homes — but also say criminalizing such behavior does little to get people into stable housing.
Abbott, a Republican who has made homelessness one of his many battlegrounds in an ongoing war against Austin’s progressive leadership, said on Thursday that he is working on a legislative prohibition on encampments like the one Vara lives in.
“I do expect to announce a statewide plan to address homelessness that will include a ban on camping, as well as other ideas to make sure that Texas will be able to effectively and aggressively address the homeless situation,” Abbott said.
But his existing alternative for people experiencing homelessness — an encampment on state-owned land out of public view — has already filled up and isn’t accepting more people.
Whether to continue allowing panhandling and public camping could also be decided by Austin voters. The organization Save Austin Now said that it has gathered more than 27,000 signed petitions to add language to the May 1 ballot that would allow voters decide whether to reinstate the public camping ban. According to co-founder Cleo Petricek, who is a Democrat, the group has bipartisan support. The Austin city clerk now has to validate that the group collected enough signatures after its first attempt to force a ballot measure failed.
“The camping ordinance has been a disaster for the city and it's been bad for the homeless,” said Matt Mackowiak, one of the co-founders of Save Austin Now. “We just fundamentally reject the idea that camping is good for the homeless. Telling a homeless person you can go live on the side of the highway and fend for yourself and try to survive hour to hour and day to day with no help is not compassionate.”
Austin Mayor Steve Adler said that reinstating the ban would be “a horrible choice” and that the measures have allowed the homeless population to move out from risky areas, like forests and flood-prone places, and made it easier to provide them with support and resources.
“The decision to no longer hide people experiencing homelessness is absolutely the right choice, but when we take people and don't hide them anymore, we have to house them,” Adler said in an interview. “And we have not moved rapidly enough to set up permanent supportive housing.”
Adler said that he will be working with the City Council to “move more aggressively to provide places for people to be.” Council members Wednesday approved the purchase of a hotel that will become transitional housing for people experiencing homelessness and next week they will consider buying a second hotel, according to the Austin American-Statesman. In total, these could house around 150 people. At the same time, council member Ann Kitchen is pushing to reinstate the ban in four specific locations, according to the Statesman.
Advocates say banning encampments outright would be a mistake, especially during a pandemic.
“Because of the ordinance changes in the decriminalization of homelessness, we definitely were able to get care and resources to people more efficiently and effectively and prevented a major outbreak,” said Matthew Mollica, executive director of Ending Community Homelessness Coalition. “One of the other things that this allows us to do, which we're in the process of doing right now, is creating a more effective outreach plan to get people experiencing homelessness vaccinated.”
The pandemic effect
According to an annual count of the city’s homeless population, the city had 2,506 people experiencing homelessness last year. The number grew by one-third between 2016 and 2020. But experts warn that these counts provide only a snapshot of the problem and the real numbers could be higher.
Thousands of people experiencing homelessness slept in tents in highly visible places throughout the city earlier this month as they endured wind, rain and even the snow. Underneath State Highway 71 near Menchaca Road, tents crammed next to one another lined each side of the road. As vehicles whirled by, some residents joked with each other while they cleaned the area. Others started up a grill and fixed up bicycles, one of the few means of transportation that people have available.
But in other areas, residents seemed less willing to socialize. At Riverside Drive and Pleasant Valley Road, a couple dozen tents try to survive heavy winds. Almost no one talked to each other and the tents were more spaced out. One resident said that she tries to avoid contact with her neighbors.
“Some people have approached me to bother me, but I tell them that if they bother me, I’ll call the police,” said María, a 57-year-old woman who asked to be identified by her middle name because some of her loved ones still don’t know she’s homeless.
The count of people experiencing homelessness occurs in January, so it’s not yet known how many additional or fewer people are homeless in Austin compared to before the pandemic. Due to COVID-19 related health and safety concerns, Austin’s homeless coalition won’t be counting unsheltered people in person this year, but will use their own internal data to develop an estimate.
Although he is careful to jump to conclusions without data, Mollica said he has seen more structures erected by people experiencing homelessness around the city. But underneath Interstate 35 on the eastern edge of downtown, people experiencing homelessnes say there are fewer people than what before the pandemic.
When the pandemic started, homeless service providers and churches closed down or operated with limited staffing. Volunteer groups stopped coming to offer food and police presence became more spotty.
Clayton Trew, a 36-year-old that doesn’t have a tent but sleeps under the highway, said that many people left for the outer rings of the city.
“With COVID, all the resources were exhausted and the little that was left there was fought for,” Trew said as he held a broom that he uses to sweep around the area. “Lots of people were getting desperate.”
He worries that the coronavirus pandemic’s accompanying recession — and the end to eviction moratoriums — could increase the number of people who become homeless. Banning public camping or panhandling, he said, won’t prevent homelessness.
“If they make them illegal, they are just going to get more people to hide,” Trew said.
State encampment reaches capacity
The encampment for people experiencing homelessness that Abbott created sits in a state-owned property near State Highways 183 and 71 in the Austin’s Montopolis neighborhood. Three 500-feet long rows of tents and makeshift structures built with wood pallets, recycled political signs and tarps are home for between 150 and 180 people.
The business-led organization ATX Helps wanted to build a “sprung shelter,” a prefabricated structure that could have housed several hundred people in bunk beds, but it never happened “due to the pandemic and social distancing requirements,” according to a spokesperson of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, one of the organizations involved in the project.
The residents have organized and christened the encampment “Esperanza Community,” and another nonprofit, The Other Ones Foundation, has started providing services for the people who live there.
In the woods beyond the community’s fence, more tents are set up because Esperanza has reached capacity. Esperanza residents said people that have been kicked out for not following the rules are also living there.
Teddy Maddux, an Esperanza resident and one of the members of the community’s organizing committee, said he valued both the creation of the encampment and lifting the bans on camping, sitting and panhandling.
“Giving us warrants was so counterproductive,” Maddux said. “If there would be more areas like this set aside for us, that would be amazing.”
Right now he sleeps in his car, a 2001 Ford Expedition that is parked in front of his tent, which acts as a living room. But nothing would be like having a proper roof over his head.
“I think it could be cheaper to build small houses and help with the cleanup,” Maddux said.
“I’m glad that Austin is friendly enough that they let you be, but we need permanent structures.”
The nonprofit is working with the state to let it lease the property. It wants to fundraise to build 200 tiny homes there.
“The Other Ones Foundation has been really promoting that sense of community in a way that is really positive for the people that are staying out there now,” Mollica said. “But I think what I've heard from folks there consistently is a desire to have access to permanent housing resources.”
Back at the corner of Menchaca and Ben White, Vara agreed as cars drove by without stopping. Since the pandemic started, she has noticed that many people are reluctant to open their window and offer money.
“Y’all don’t want us hanging here, we don’t want that either,” she said. “A little hand would stabilize us and get us help.”
Disclosure: Austin Chamber of Commerce has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.