Wednesday, March 18, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

Homeless advocates organize against petition to reinstate anti-camping laws

The coalition of community groups that pushed for the city to decriminalize homelessness last summer has organized opposition to a petition drive that seeks to reverse the ordinance change via referendum.

The Homes Not Handcuffs Coalition, which includes the Texas ACLU, Front Steps and the Austin Lawyers Guild among its members, is mounting a public education campaign against Save Austin Now’s petition drive. The petition drive, which was launched last month, seeks to reinstate the previous ban on homeless camping; reinstate the no-sit/no-lie ordinance with an extension of the prohibited area to include the University of Texas campus; and ban panhandling citywide from 7 p.m.-7 a.m.

Homes Not Handcuffs had planned to hold a press conference on March 9, but that event was canceled as attention turned to the city’s efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19.

Chris Harris, a campaign coordinator for Texas Appleseed, said the coalition feels the city should direct resources to placing those experiencing homelessness into housing rather than punishing them.

“At this point it’s about community education and making sure folks understand that these laws that were in place before didn’t make us safer, and with them being repealed there’s no evidence of any increase in crime, and it’s more important to spend our limited resources to house folks rather police, ticket, arrest and jail folks for these issues,” he said. “What’s being proposed won’t actually help with homelessness but will drive it underground again at great cost to our city and most marginalized community members.”

Harris said the ordinance change could have been handled more smoothly by the city if more restrooms and public showers had been made available. He said making storage areas available is another step that would have reduced negative reaction to the decision to relax rules against the homeless camping and remaining in public places.

The June vote by City Council drew heavy criticism throughout the city when many of the area’s homeless residents quickly became visible in public places rather than hidden in secluded places.

Matt Mackowiak, chairman of the Travis County Republican Party and one of the organizers of the petition drive, said he’s optimistic Save Austin Now will meet the July 18 deadline to gather 20,000 signatures and places the question on the November ballot.

He said collecting signatures in person hasn’t been possible because of COVID-19 concerns and rules against public gatherings, so the group’s focus is on encouraging those who signed an online petition to mail in physical copies of the signed petition. Currently there are about 100 signatures per day arriving through the mail, he said.

“I don’t think we need to do any (messaging) really. We believe that a strong majority already agrees with us,” he said. “(Homes Not Handcuffs) is an old group that wants homeless people to be able to do anything they want at any time. They’re very much behind the ordinance and we believe that they’ve lost the argument as it relates to public safety and public health.”

David Johnson, a member of the criminal justice team for Grassroots Leadership, said groups both for and against the petition will have to use digital communication and social media to reach the public in the coming months.

“We are able to breathe a little more easily because if we can’t talk to people in person then neither can those who want to put that petition through,” he said. “If we are restrained to communicating with one another by phone, teleconference or web conference and digitally is our way, then those same handicaps face those doing the petition drive. I feel confident that that level of grassroots digital organizing and media management is something all of those in this coalition are much better equipped to deal with effectively.”

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