Austin, Texas, enjoys a well-deserved image as a cool and rapidly growing city, with great food, nightlife, a booming tech industry, the University of Texas, and major events such as Austin City Limits music festival, South by Southwest, and Formula 1. But over the past two years it has gained a new reputation: a city with a homelessness crisis, fueled by a misbegotten “camping” policy.
On July 1, 2019, a public-camping ordinance took effect that made unregulated, open public camping lawful in nearly all public spaces in Austin. The consequences were profound immediately. Homeless shelters emptied, homeless individuals began traveling to Austin, major intersections had large encampments form, and even Town Lake, among the most beautiful and cherished areas of our city, became overrun with tents and makeshift encampments.
Austin incentivized vagrancy as a lifestyle choice and did nothing to prepare for the consequences of the policy shift. The two of us do not agree on national politics whatsoever, but when we met about two years ago, we quickly realized that citizen-led grassroots activism would be the only way that we could save Austin from becoming a failed city like Los Angeles or San Francisco.
We founded Save Austin Now, our nonpartisan nonprofit with a mission of educating voters about city policies and standard-of-living issues. We have been doing this for nearly two full years.
In September 2019, we learned that advocating for reinstatement of the camping ban would never be possible with our current city council. In February 2020, we launched a petition drive to put an ordinance to reinstate the public-camping ban in Austin on the ballot.
We were denied certification of the 20,000 signatures needed on our first attempt (which is the subject of active litigation). In December 2020 we launched a second round. After just 50 days, we collected 30,000 and turned in 27,000 validated signatures. In February we were certified for the May 1 election.
After a ten-week campaign, our sister organization, Save Austin Now PAC, secured a landslide election victory in Austin (58–42 percent), with more than 156,000 votes cast in a low-turnout municipal election with no local candidates on the ballot. This result came in a city with just 21 percent Republican voters.
In the end, we won the votes of at least 40 percent of Democrats, at least 85 percent of independents, and at least 90 percent of Republicans. That’s what a winning coalition looks like. If a victory like this is possible in Austin, one of the most progressive cities in America, then it is possible anywhere. The necessary ingredients were these: a true nonpartisan partnership; a focus on data, organizing, volunteer recruitment, fundraising, and efficient voter contact; and absolute relentlessness.
Homelessness is a vexing challenge. It involves thorny issues including mental health, drug and alcohol addiction, job training, and one other issue that is often ignored: noncompliance.
There is a portion of the homeless population that will not comply with local ordinances and laws and refuses to accept housing or services. This is a narrow slice of the population, but it requires a tailored solution that begins with enforcement of existing laws.
From the beginning we believed that desiring a city that is safe for both the homeless and the residents should not be too much to ask. But for our city leaders, it was too much to ask.
Nine out of ten council members and our mayor opposed our effort. The architect, council member Greg Casar, and our mayor, Steve Adler, campaigned aggressively in favor of continuing the disastrous public-camping ordinance.
We estimate that our homeless population over the past two years has doubled, from 2,500 to 5,000. Meanwhile, public safety, public health, tourism, and the image of our city have all been harmed. Every neighborhood, every major intersection, every city park, every hotel, restaurant, condo building, and apartment building has been negatively affected by this policy.
Worst of all, our homeless have been living in unsafe, unsanitary, and unregulated campgrounds, with massive amounts of human waste and physical trash piling up, where hard drugs are being sold, and where predators commit stabbings, violent assaults, and even rapes on a daily basis. In spite of these sobering facts, our city leaders refused to admit this reality.
Should it require 23 months to overturn a policy that 58 percent oppose? We were willing to make this investment of time and energy. Not everyone would be. Now our city turns its focus to actual, proven solutions for homelessness.
In Austin we have two shining examples: Community First Village, run by Mobile Loaves and Fishes, which has more than 500 tiny and microhomes on site and is a fantastic example of addressing homelessness by providing community, the dignity that comes with work, and reinstatement of the social contract that governs all productive lives. Similarly, Camp Esperanza, which sits on land donated by the State of Texas and is run by The Other Ones Foundation, is building 238 temporary structures to provide homeless individuals with safe shelter space for quiet sleep, running water and electricity, and protection of private property.
If your city is in crisis, consider replicating our approach. We would love to help you with what we have learned. Unregulated camping isn’t good for anyone.
Matt Mackowiak and Cleo Petricek are co-founders of Save Austin Now, an educational nonprofit focused on educating residents about standard-of-living issues.