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Group says it has enough signatures to put Austin’s homelessness ordinances on the November ballot

Tuesday, July 21, 2020 by Andrew Weber, KUT

A GOP-backed group says it’s collected enough signatures to put a reversal of the city’s homeless ordinances on the ballot in November.

Save Austin Now, a coalition led by longtime strategist and Travis County GOP Chair Matt Mackowiak, announced Monday it has turned in 24,087 signatures for its petition to reinstate bans on camping, panhandling and sitting or resting in public in certain areas of the city.

City Council voted in June 2019 to scale back city laws that regulate behavior related to homelessness. Supporters of that decision argued that the laws criminalized homelessness and that similar laws have been struck down as unconstitutional in federal courts in cities without adequate shelter space. The number of people experiencing homelessness in Austin hit a 10-year high this year, and the number of unsheltered Austinites increased 45 percent compared to 2019, according to the city’s annual census.

Officials say that’s partly because shelters like the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless have moved away from overnight sleeping, requiring clients to participate in case-management services in the hopes of transitioning to permanent housing.

Opponents, including Gov. Greg Abbott, have argued the city’s current rules have made Austin unsafe. Abbott ordered the Texas Department of Transportation to set up a state-sanctioned campsite on vacant land off U.S. Highway 183. That site was meant to be a temporary fix until a more permanent shelter came online, but that effort is not moving forward.

The signatures on Save Austin Now’s petition must now be verified by the city clerk. If verified, the Austin City Council could approve the petition as written – which seems unlikely as the overwhelming majority of Council members approved the rollback of the rules last year. If it’s voted down, Council would be tasked with crafting the ballot language and it would be put to a vote in November.

City Council members were taken to state court over their ballot language last year regarding a referendum of the expansion of the Austin Convention Center. While a state appeals court ultimately required the city to revise the language, the petition was ultimately voted down by voters.

Save Austin Now began collecting petition signatures back in February, and it had a 180-day deadline to turn in the signatures to the clerk. Late last week, Mackowiak put out a call for signatures ahead of the deadline, saying the group was about 1,000 signatures short.

Over the weekend, groups opposing Save Austin Now argued the volunteers and paid contractors soliciting on behalf of the group misled people into signing the petition. A city spokesperson confirmed a number of Austinites requested forms to remove their names from the petition.

The clerk’s office will now begin verifying the signatures, which the city says will take three to five weeks.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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