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Petition would recriminalize homeless camping

Tuesday, February 25, 2020 by Jo Clifton

Travis County Republican Party Chair Matt Mackowiak began the week taking a shot at local Democrats on the Austin City Council, announcing a petition that seeks to recriminalize camping in public places by the homeless.

According to local Republican Party spokesman Andy Hogue, however, Mackowiak’s organization, Save Austin Now, is a “nonpartisan, freestanding nonprofit.”

Democrat Cleo Petricek, co-founder of the organization, said in a press release, “This is a standard of living issue for every neighborhood in Austin. Our city leaders have not listened, so we must take action ourselves. There is no partisan angle to wanting a safe neighborhood.”

She characterized the city’s leadership as “tone-deaf and arrogant” and predicted that the group would have the signatures necessary to put the petition on the November ballot. As of Monday afternoon, more than 88,000 people had indicated on the Save Austin Now website that they would be willing to sign the petition.

In order to get the measure on the November ballot, the sponsors must collect the signatures of 20,000 registered Austin voters by mid-July, according to the group’s website.

Last summer, City Council repealed an ordinance that made it illegal to camp in public places. After considerable outcry, especially from the downtown business community, Council modified its stance, prohibiting camping in certain places, such as within 15 feet of a business. Some people were satisfied and the city has worked with various groups to provide shelter for the homeless, but public camping remains a divisive issue.

Petitioners also seek to extend the ban on camping to cover the University of Texas campus area and to ban panhandling from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

According to the Save Austin Now website, the result of Council’s action “has been chaos.” The website refers to “several violent attacks” for which homeless people have been blamed. Austin police have officially declared that the presence of guns downtown, not in the hands of the homeless, is responsible for the spike in violence.

Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday said in a news release that his organization was proud to support the petition.

Council Member Greg Casar, who led the effort to repeal the camping ban, released the following statement: “If the Travis County GOP Chair wants to spend a lot of money, time and energy on a hurtful campaign that will do nothing to decrease our homeless population, that’s certainly his choice. But if Gov. Greg Abbott and the GOP Chair truly cared about public safety and public health in Austin, they would be working with the Austin City Council to provide housing and services to people experiencing homelessness. Unfortunately, it seems clear that they are committed to making matters worse.”

Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison told the Austin Monitor via text, “The votes we took last year were not only based on sound, compassionate policy but also on the U.S. Constitution. My focus now is on resolving the problems of homelessness by building more homes and making robust investments in safety net programs rather than restoring old ordinances that a judge will ultimately strike down again in a court of law.”

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