Candidates offer competing visions on homelessness

Homeless encampment during Winter Storm Uri, February 12, 2021. Photo by author.

The current Austin City Council has made it a priority to boost funding for homeless services, but some mayoral and council candidates think the city hasn’t done enough, while others see the current efforts as misguided and ineffective.

Among the six candidates running for mayor and the 28 running for council, some are promising more affordable housing as a long-term solution to homelessness, while others want better enforcement of an anti-camping ordinance, and still others focus on improving streetside services and short-term shelters.

Homeless services and public camping have been contentious political issues in Austin since the council repealed an ordinance restricting public camping in June 2019. That resulted in a two-year period in which the homeless were able to erect tents and makeshift structures without fear of repercussions.

But it also generated a backlash that led to a petition-initiated election in May 2021 to reinstate the restrictions. Proposition B, approved by 57.7 percent of voters, created “a criminal offense and penalty for camping in any public area not designated by the Parks and Recreation Department.”

After that, the Parks and Recreation Department presented the council with a list of 45 sites that could function as sanctioned campsites. The council held several discussions on the matter in mid 2021 but failed to reach any agreement as members objected to campsites within their own districts. The same council members who could agree in 2019 that camping should be allowed everywhere in the city could not agree in 2021 on even one location where it should be allowed.

The only sanctioned outdoor campsite in Austin is Camp Esperanza, located on state-owned land in the Montopolis area, and managed by The Other Ones Foundation. The council has put the issue on the backburner since last summer, though they may revisit it soon, Community Impact reported.

Five of ten council seats are on the ballot this November, plus the mayor’s seat. The newly elected council members will face questions not only about sanctioned campsites but also other homeless-related topics, including the budget, oversight of the HEAL initiative—which coordinates the clearing of campsites—and environmental and safety issues, such as the high number of pedestrian and overdose deaths among the homeless.

Ellis highlights current programs

Paige Ellis

District 8 Council Member Paige Ellis, one of two incumbents seeking reelection, reflects the current council’s approach to the issues. She has voted to boost funding for services, including an alternative work program, new Community Health Paramedics, and an expanded Homeless Outreach Street Team.

Ellis also has voted to make significant new investments in housing for the homeless, including by acquiring several hotels that are being repurposed as shelters. She highlights these “hotel/motel conversions” on her website, writing, “I support (this) strategy to achieve meaningful expansion of housing units where people can be rapidly rehoused.”

The city has purchased four hotels in the past two years. It is using two as temporary “bridge” shelters and is converting the other two into permanent housing units. These investments are part of a broader $515 million plan, funded in part with federal dollars, to house 3,000 people.

Steve Adler

Mayor Steve Adler, a champion of the plan, declared in his August 26th State of the City address that the initiative “puts Austin on the path to end homelessness for good.” “Austin is poised to become the first major city in America to end homelessness,” he claimed.

Not mentioned on Ellis’s website is the fact that in 2021 she opposed the designation of a sanctioned campsite in her district. However, she voted to fund services at Camp Esperanza, the state-sanctioned site. I voted to support funding for this facility near 183 and Montopolis, featuring paved roads, tiny homes, gardens, bathing facilities, job opportunities, and health services,” she writes.

As to the camping ban, Ellis has paid lip service to enforcement but downplayed the efficacy of such an approach. She said at a candidate forum, “The laws need to be enforced. You know, council has adopted the camping ban itself. The enforcement is an issue here, but without having places for people to go that, you know, interim housing, bridge housing, shelters, you’re not going to see a big increase in people being moved off the street. It’s also about jobs programming, making sure people have the stability to have their documents, their identification, their birth certificates. I’ve been a big supporter of The Other Ones Foundation and created the clean creeks crew, which both are jobs pipelines for individuals experiencing homelessness, being able to move into more permanent jobs.”

HEAL Initiative

Another candidate closely associated with the current council and its policies is Ken Craig, who has been District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen’s senior policy advisor for over seven years and is running to replace her. Craig played a role in creating and overseeing the HEAL Initiative, short for Housing-Focused Encampment Assistance Link.

Ken Craig

HEAL is an inter-departmental operation aimed at clearing high-priority encampments, while also connecting the displaced with services. The council passed a resolution launching the initiative in February 2021, three months before voters approved Proposition B, the anti-camping ordinance. Craig’s boss Kitchen was the lead sponsor on the resolution.

HEAL targets encampments in “areas of the city that pose risks to public health and safety due to close proximity to vehicular traffic and other hazards” such as flooding, according to the resolution text. Under the initiative, city staff and contractors have cleared several of the city’s most visible encampments, including at the underpass at Ben White and Menchaca, and at the Terrazas Branch Library on Cesar Chavez.

The Statesman reported September 15th that the initiative has cleared 10 encampments so far and moved about 360 people into shelters, though nearly a third of those subsequently returned to the streets.

In addition to his council experience, Craig has served as a board member of the Religious Coalition to Assist the Homeless since 2014. Craig did not respond to a request for an interview.

Focus on shelters, housing

Craig and Ellis aren’t the only candidates who would be likely to sustain the council’s current approach. Although there are some dissenters (more on that later), many of the most competitive candidates this year—those who have built a network of supporters, attracted endorsements, and raised funds—have promised to continue the council’s priorities, emphasizing the need for more shelters and housing.

Tom Wald

For example, District 9 candidate Tom Wald proposes boosting the number of basic shelters while also overhauling the city’s housing code to lower the cost of housing. “Homelessness has been a part of my family, and it will be a top priority for me as a council member, if elected,” he told the Bulldog.

“I firmly believe that we can and should end chronic homelessness by providing adequate permanent housing to those who need it. On the way to achieving that goal, and by 2024, we should provide a minimum of basic shelter to those who need it.”

However, Wald differs from the current council in that he would support sanctioned campsites: “By the end of 2023, we should provide a minimum of sanctioned campgrounds in order to immediately lift up the health and safety of the unhoused.”

Wald links the issue of homelessness with overall housing policy. “As local housing prices rise…homelessness also increases. People of higher incomes outbid those who earn a little less, and the result is that those with the lowest incomes have nowhere they can afford to live. Ending chronic homelessness means that we need to allow for more housing across income levels.”

Stephanie Bazan

Similarly, Stephanie Bazan, a candidate in District 5, speaking at a candidate forum September 22nd, called for an ambitious overhaul of the city’s land code, linking the issue to homelessness. “We’re a decade behind, we’ve got people who are really struggling,” she said. Besides those who are already experiencing homelessness, “we also have folks who are one emergency away from being homeless.”

Likewise, two leading candidates for mayor, State Representative Celia Israel and former State Senator Kirk Watson, have made housing and affordability the focus of their campaigns. Each has also linked the issue to homelessness. “Housing is a human right, the city should be leading that effort,” Israel told Axios recently. “This has to be an all-in situation.”

However, the two candidates stress different priorities when they speak about homelessness, with Watson generally pairing the issue with a call for enforcement of the camping ban and the creation of sanctioned campsites, and Israel instead focusing on the role of nonprofit service providers.

Celia Israel

“We’ve seen our nonprofit partners rise up in a way that I’m very proud of,” Israel said a recent interview with KVUE, citing Urban League, Safe Alliance, Caritas, and Family Eldercare. “We’re at a good inflection point I believe with our partnerships with our longstanding nonprofit partners.” Israel called these nonprofits “a much better, trusted partner to understand the needs of that homeless individual than a city official.”

Sanctioned campsites

Watson, who served as mayor from May 1997 to November 2001, is one of several candidates who want to create sanctioned campsites, which could be used by persons forcibly located from other sites targeted under the HEAL Initiative and the anti-camping ordinance. “The camping ban has to be enforced…but yet we don’t have places for them to go,” he said at a candidate forum September 12th.

Kirk Watson

Watson repeated this view and elaborated on it at another forum October 5th: “While I agree with the idea of permanent supportive housing and getting people into permanent supportive housing, what has happened is that we are giving an all-or-nothing choice: either live anywhere you want to live or camp anywhere you want to camp at any time, until we can get you into permanent supportive housing. And that system has not worked.”

“There’s a big gap between those two things. We need to create a continuum where we have services along the way. One is doing partnerships with those who are providing permanent supportive housing, like Caritas and other nonprofits. But in addition, we’re going to have to enforce the camping ban. The citizens have told us they want the camping ban enforced and the legislature has told us you must enforce the camping ban. But in order to do that, you’re going to have to have places where people can go, and we’re not doing that right now.”

Ryan Alter

District 5 candidate Ryan Alter, a former Watson legislative aide, also supports the idea of sanctioned campsites, telling the Bulldog, “I am proposing that we establish regional stabilization hubs, similar to Esperanza Community, that provide a safe space to live and receive necessary services like physical and mental health, transportation, sanitation, and case working, which will then serve as the bridge to the housing we have in the pipeline.”

Alter, who isn’t related to the current council member of that name, stressed that this would be only one leg of a two-part approach, one short-term and one long-term. He supports the city’s “big long-term plan to create thousands of units for the unhoused,” but thinks that it is failing in its short-term approach.

Antonio Ross

Another benefit of sanctioned campsites would be better security, according to Antonio D. Ross, a candidate in District 8. At candidate forum September 22nd, he said, “We have to have safety here in Austin, and by doing that, getting homeless off the streets, we have to start off with a structure. We have to challenge their mental (health), we have to look at how we get everybody in the same place at one time without any crime.”

Ross, a former army sergeant and member of the Austin ISD long-range planning committee, said that “safety” was the main reason he was running for office. “The camping ban is not working. I feel we have to really enforce that camping ban in order to get ’em back in and reel ’em back in. But if we’re going enforce the camping ban, then we still have to give them resources like for mental health, for food, and money to care for themselves.”

Camping debate redux

Watson is no stranger to debates around public camping. Just before he took office in 1997, the council had passed an ordinance cracking down on public camping. The ordinance, backed by the Downtown Austin Alliance, sparked backlash from newly elected progressive city council members, threatening a repeal. Watson, however, brokered a compromise that allowed the ordinance to remain in place.

“We want to protect our public properties, we want to protect our private properties,” he was quoted as saying in the Austin Business Journal of July 20, 1997, which reported that Watson had managed to sway other council members who previously had called for repeal of the ordinance. At the same time, Watson added, “we don’t want to criminalize homelessness,” and “we want to do something substantive about our homeless situation.”

As part of Watson’s compromise, the Downtown Austin Alliance dropped its opposition to the construction of homeless shelters downtown, and the city promised more services. The ordinance stayed on the books until its repeal in 2019, though it was tweaked in 2000 to draw a distinction between “camping” and merely “sleeping” in public, which was made legal. In those years, nearly 53,000 citations were issued for camping, solicitation, and other public nuisance violations, according to records published by The Texas Observer in 2020.

However, enforcement was limited during Watson’s term itself. The Downtown Austin Community Court, which was established on Watson’s watch, handled 143 camping cases in 1999, 278 in 2000, and 125 in 2001. (The Municipal Court handled just four camping cases on those years). By comparison, police had enforced the ordinance more zealously during its first year in effect, before Watson’s term, citing or arresting 2,087 people, according to a March 1997 memo by Assistant City Manager Joseph Lessard. The effort resulted in a “significant use of police resources,” the city official noted.

Watson’s efforts to stymie repeal of the ordinance drew fire from homeless advocates. “They’re trying to draw a linkage between the two issues and say that when they get the [homeless] center done then [the homeless] will have a place to go. We cannot allow a linkage. This is a bad law and it has to go,” said Richard Troxell, president of the advocacy group House the Homeless, as quoted in The Austin Chronicle in July 1997.

Watson and the council also faced opposition over the expansion of downtown homeless shelters. As reported by In Fact newsletter in 1998, the East Sixth Street Community Association launched a petition drive to oppose the creation of a 250-bed shelter at an existing Salvation Army facility on 7th Street and Neches.

Interior of the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless

The proposed shelter, which ended up being built, was in a bad location because of its proximity to liquor store and bars, according to opponents. In Fact, which was written by current Bulldog editor Ken Martin, quoted former Travis County Commissioner Bob Honts saying, “We are not opposed to having a shelter to improve the lives of these unfortunate people, but not in this prime area. This is just a poor job of location by the Austin City Council.”

Jennifer Virden

Twenty-five years later, that shelter remains at the same location, near another shelter established in 2004, the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, known colloquially as the ARCH. The downtown shelters remain a source of controversy, with Watson’s mayoral opponent Jennifer Virden echoing the same criticisms of 1998. Virden, who proposes relocating the ARCH, writes on her website, “An alcohol-fueled tourism district is no place for a homeless shelter where most are struggling with addiction or other mental health issues.”

‘Proud’ of legacy

Watson defended his record on homelessness in a book that he published in 2019, Austin Unlimited: the people, place, passion and prospects. “We did a lot of work addressing needs of those living in homelessness when I was mayor. I’m still proud of it.”

“We shifted thinking and focused on the creation of a continuum of services. We made a multi-million-dollar infusion of funding for what was then known as SafePlace to assist women and children. We created a special downtown court to help those charged with nuisance violations to find help. We also empowered and formed lasting partnerships with non-profits and faith-based groups that are still doing so much to address this daily tragedy. And we built the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, which opened in 2004.”

Recalling the battle over building shelters downtown, he wrote, “We had to beat back the strong, orchestrated, well-financed effort to sweep up the homeless and dump them where they could be guiltlessly forgotten.”

Later, when Watson was serving in the state senate, he played a role in passing legislation aimed at helping homeless service organizations like Mobile Loaves and Fishes, which operates Community First! Village. Watson was the senate sponsor of House Bill 294 in 2009, which exempted community housing development organizations from property taxes.

The bill’s author, State Representative Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin), credited Watson for his role in securing passage of the new law, writing on his campaign website in 2020 that the bill helped “pave the way for the pioneering Community First! Village that provides affordable, permanent housing and a supportive community to people experiencing homelessness in East Austin.”

Watson recorded a podcast with Community First Village founder Alan Graham in 2018, during which the latter described Watson as “a great friend and a collaborator” and praised him as “a collaborative personality” and a person with a “desire to build consensus.” Watson also formerly served on the board of Green Doors, which helps homeless veterans and their families.

Republicans focus on prohibition

Republican candidates for council are calling for citywide enforcement of Proposition B, the ban on public camping. Mayoral candidate Jennifer Virden laid out her views in a September 1st position paper, writing that the camping ban should fully enforced with “no exceptions.”

“Those in violation of the camping ordinance should be directed to appropriate shelters, housing, or go through the court system for connection to case management and supportive services,” she wrote. At a recent mayoral forum, and in a candidate questionnaire Virden criticized Watson for supporting sanctioned campgrounds, calling it a “terrible idea.”

“People from all over the country will come to our established sanctioned campgrounds and then they will just determine that they don’t like living by rules and they don’t want to seek mental health treatment and they don’t want to seek drug addiction treatment. That is the reason most of them live in the street,” she said, as quoted by CBS Austin.

Bill Welch

Similarly, District 5 candidate Bill Welch wants to “enforce the campaign ban” and “remove encampments and cleanup our city parks, streets, roadways and underpasses,” according to a list of his policy priorities published on his website. However, Welch supports the idea of sanctioned campgrounds, saying, “For those who choose the lifestyle, establish approved campgrounds in outlying city properties with requirements to maintain good order and cleanliness. Provide toilet and laundry facilities.”

Richard Smith, a conservative challenging Paige Ellis in District 8, likewise calls for enforcing the camping ban. In a press release, he called the City Council’s the repeal of the ban in 2019 “reckless and harmful.” Smith was endorsed by Save Austin Now, the political action committee that conducted the petition drive that led to the Proposition B election that reinstated the camping ban.

However, Smith also has highlighted his volunteerism with the homeless services organization Mobile Loaves and Fishes. “My wife and I have been very involved with the Mobile Loaves and Fishes and actually working hands-on with the homeless,” he said at a candidate forum September 22nd.

Clinton Rarey

District 1 candidate Clinton Rarey, who likewise supports the camping ban, moved to Austin from California several years ago. “The reason that I’m running here is the same reason why I Ieft California, with radical policies that destroyed through high taxation, high cost of living, high crime, and high homelessness. I started slowly seeing that get adopted in 2019 when we saw the massive encampments happening downtown,” he said at a September 8th candidate forum. (Rarey is not running as a Republican but espouses generally conservative political views).

On Twitter and Facebook, Rarey has posted dozens of videos and photos of trash at abandoned homeless encampments in Austin greenbelts. Photos that he shared with Fox News were published by the conservative news outlet August 31st.

Rarey added, “I’ve actually been going through the encampments and the greenbelts and documenting it and it’s bad…Austin Public Health actually reached out to me to show them where the encampments are because they’re not doing their job.”

Finally, D5 candidate Yvonne Weldon, also a Republican, says that breaking the cycle of homelessness is “a top priority” for her. Yet she opposes sanctioned campsites, saying, “We will focus on compassionate and effective services and strategies that help and not hurt those experiencing homelessness.”

Aaron Webman

Finally, Aaron Webman, though not a Republican, is another candidate who supports a prohibition on street camping. “Allowing street camping increases violence and deprives cities of a valuable tool to encourage homeless people to engage with treatment,” he wrote on his website. “We must institute pay-for-performance contracts, reform mental health admission criteria, and provide affordable shelter and service alternatives. This will improve communities and help the homeless get back on their feet.”

On his website, Webman says he’s “technically a Democrat” but “not beholden to any political party.” Webman has ties to Joe Lonsdale, a software billionaire and libertarian. He serves on the board of the Cicero Institute, a thinktank chaired by Lonsdale. Webman is backed by Restore Leadership ATX, a political action committee funded largely by Austin business executives.

Attacks on ‘housing first’

Republican candidates are also attacking the city’s “housing first” approach, which provides shelter without conditions. As defined by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, “Housing First is a homeless assistance approach that prioritizes providing permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness…Housing First does not require people experiencing homelessness to address all of their problems including behavioral health problems, or to graduate through a series of services programs before they can access housing.”

Virden says that the city should shift from a “Housing First” to a “Housing Plus Treatment” model of service delivery. She wrote in a position paper, “While housing is important, housing alone does not work without required supportive services to go along with it…Mental health, substance abuse, and other rehabilitative services should not be optional when receiving housing or shelter.”

Virden also promised to “end expensive homeless hotel enterprises,” saying the city should turn to “more cost-effective, less capital-intensive models to help those in need.”

Southbridge, a former hotel acquired by the city in 2021 and repurposed as transitional housing

Rarey, the conservative running in District 1, likewise said he would support a “housing plus treatment” approach. “Building more shelters will just draw more homeless to the city,” he said at a candidate forum. “60 percent of the (homeless) people I’ve spoken to were homeless before they came to Austin.”

Similarly, Webman attacked the city’s “housing first” approach, writing on his website, “Housing First has failed everywhere it has been tried. For instance, since 2011, San Francisco has built more than enough ‘permanent housing’ for every single chronically homeless individual in the city. Yet instead of ‘ending homelessness’ as promised, homelessness increased substantially and the city has become an international byword for the homelessness crisis.”

For his part, Richard Smith said that homelessness in Austin “is definitely not a housing problem. It’s a human problem that involves the components of trauma, mental health, addiction—that sort of thing. And unfortunately the city has been focused on basically rooms for folks, with little attention to the mental health, trauma, and addiction that accompanies homeless folks.”

Smith said he supported providing “temporary shelter” to the homeless where they can “get assessments and give them the option to get the treatment they need,” adding, “but we can’t indefinitely house people.”

On the other hand, some candidates expressly support Housing First. District 5 candidate Stephanie Bazan says, “We live in a city where we have made being without a home a criminal act, but we have done little to truly address the issue. To make lasting change, we must increase the pace of (providing) units for the unhoused and vulnerable and also encourage Housing First – a national best practice that prioritizes housing along with supportive services.”

Similarly, D9 candidate Wald, who said he had a family member who experienced homelessness, asserted, “fundamentally, homelessness is a housing problem.” However, he added that “typically there is a contributing factor to becoming unhoused (e.g. mental health issues, drug addiction, escaping domestic violence, job loss, or residence damage), and those all require attention too.”

Israel, the mayoral candidate, likewise said she had a family member who experienced homelessness for many years, and she stressed that it was both housing and services that changed his situation: “He had a horrible addiction problem, and he was surrounded by wealthy people who said, we don’t want you to be on the streets, we’re getting you an apartment, and he resisted. It took several years for him to finally get to a protected place with counseling and support in a Foundation Communities facility that I’m sure had some support from the City of Austin.”

Budget for homeless services

The latest city budget includes $79.1 million for homeless services in fiscal year 2022-23. The budget categorizes that funding into four core components: Reducing Inflow, Crisis Response, Housing Stabilization, and Public Space Management.

Community Health Paramedic visiting an encampment (ECHO)

The Reducing Inflow category accounts for $6.7 million of the total, including $5 million for one-time housing rental assistance. The Crisis Response category gets $20.3 million, which goes to the downtown shelters and other providers.

The largest category is Housing Stabilization, which gets $45.4 million. Another $6.7 million is for Public Space Management, mostly for cleaning up encampments ($4.8 million). However, category also includes $215,000 for downtown public toilets and $1.5 million for the Homeless Strategy Division within Austin Public Health.

Additionally, the city is still spending down $106.7 million of federal American Rescue Plan funds, which were appropriated last year with a multi-year time horizon. About a quarter of that money, $25.5 million, is for building new housing units. Another $55 million is for the costs of bridge shelters and other programs, $9 million is for building system capacity, and $17 million is for services, according to the plan details.

National policy issues

While the city has sought local solutions to homelessness, some candidates point to state or national policies as drivers behind homelessness. For instance, in an op-ed published in the Statesman in January, mayoral candidate Celia Israel linked homelessness to the state’s strained foster care system. “National data estimates that one in four of America’s foster youths will experience homelessness within just four years after leaving foster care,” she wrote.

“Texas has been dealing with a crisis in our foster care system for a generation now. Many of our neighbors experiencing homelessness are also a reflection of the lack of support we give foster care children in our care.”

Similarly, at a candidate forum, District 8 incumbent Paige Ellis faulted the state’s public health policies. Homelessness is partly about housing, she said, but “mental health is also a component of it, especially in a state that will not expand access to healthcare. It just simply refuses to.” Ellis was responding to a question whether homelessness in Austin is “a crisis in housing or mental health.” She said it was both, while pointing out not everyone experiencing homelessness is mentally ill.

Population of homeless

It’s unclear how many unhoused people live in Austin because it’s been more than two years since the city carried out a census. Volunteer surveyors used to carry out an annual point-in-time count on a single day each year, but the city cancelled its 2021 and 2022 counts due to concerns about Covid-19. The last count, conducted in January 2020, counted the number of people experiencing homelessness at 2,506, including 1,574 unsheltered and 932 in shelters or transitional housing.

More recent data comes from the Ending Community Homeless Coalition (ECHO), which in 2021 estimated the number of people experiencing homelessness in Austin to be 3,160. That estimate was derived from a database called the Homeless Management Information System, which includes information about individuals who have received services from charitable providers.

However, the actual number of homeless may be substantially higher than that, since that dataset doesn’t include information about homeless individuals who haven’t sought assistance.

Trust indicators: Bulldog reporter Daniel Van Oudenaren is a journalist with 13 years experience in local, state, and international reporting.

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Want to get elected but not be accountable? September 28, 2022

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Let the mayor and council campaigns begin, August 22, 2022

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