AUSTIN, Texas—In the downtown area of the Texas capital, the Colorado River flows beside a walking trail near the newly constructed Central Library and offices for Google, Facebook, and other tech companies. Students from the nearby University of Texas campus and young professionals walk dogs or ride electric scooters past construction sites and health food restaurants. And from nearly every street corner, passersby can also observe the city’s growing homeless population. On Seventh Street, police officers patrol in front of the city’s ever-full homeless shelter, where drug dealers often loiter.
This summer, the Austin City Council repealed the city’s public camping ban. Starting July 1, people could pitch tents, sit, or lie on most public property as long as they did not block walkways. Loud public protests and warnings from the governor have led the council to reconsider the change.
Local leaders have said it’s not fair to tell homeless people to move from public spaces without providing somewhere else for them to go. With recent development aimed almost entirely at housing and entertaining young tech workers, few affordable housing or shelter options exist in the city.
Many business owners and Austin residents have raised concerns about how public camping affects the safety and cleanliness of their neighborhoods. “I got two emails last month from customers who said, ‘I can’t go to your store anymore because it smells like urine,’” Craig Staley, who runs Royal Blue Grocery in downtown Austin, told The Washington Post.
The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty surveyed 187 cities and found a third of them banned camping in public. Many states in the West scrambled to adjust their policies after a ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2018, which covers much of the western United States. Six people convicted of violating a camping ban in Boise, Idaho, sued the city in 2009, and the 9th Circuit eventually ruled that a city cannot punish homeless people for camping on public property if local shelters have no available space. Boise is appealing the case, which could wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The city of Seattle, which has one of the largest unsheltered homeless populations in the United States, bans public camping but doesn’t consistently enforce the rules, according to the police department. Piles of trash, tents on sidewalks, and unchecked reckless behavior from homeless people increasingly frustrate residents. In Denver, voters in May shot down a ballot initiative to rescind the city’s camping ban. Some supporters of the initiative hoped it would succeed where statewide legislation had repeatedly failed to repeal camping restrictions. But an overwhelming 82 percent of Denver residents voted against the measure.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, tweeted examples of Austin’s homeless creating trouble and informed the Austin City Council it had until Nov. 1 to get the situation under control. The council intended to revise the camping ordinance in September, but members could not agree and postponed the decision until their meeting on Thursday.
Mark Hilbelink, the pastor of Sunrise Community Church in Austin, said the increase in public camping has brought tension between the homeless and Austin residents to “an all-time high.” He said just seeing the homeless bothers most Austin residents: “People don’t like to think about existential things at every street corner they drive up to.”
James Whitford, director of the True Charity Initiative, said eliminating downtown camping areas drives some homeless people toward shelters but most head deeper into the brush. He suggested Austin leaders do three things: Specify public camping areas near job opportunities and services, maintain a police force large enough to enforce the camping restrictions, transport people to the legal camping zone, and bring together faith leaders and others for outreach to those areas.
“As in most cases, regulation to solve social issues quenches the demand for more thoughtful, compassionate civic responses,” Whitford said.