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Austin voters approve reinstating bans on camping, resting and panhandling

Monday, May 3, 2021 by Andrew Weber, KUT

Lee esta historia en español.

Austin has voted to reinstate criminal penalties for behavior related to homelessness.

With its passage, Proposition B will restore the city’s previous ban on public encampments, prohibition of resting in certain areas and limitations on panhandling. The citizen-led measure passed handily by a 15-point margin.

The measure fueled an unusually large turnout for a May election in an off-year. All told, 90,428 voters in Travis, Hays and Williamson counties supported the measure, while 66,292 opposed it, according to unofficial results.

The measure is a direct response to Austin’s policies related to homelessness. Back in 2019, City Council voted to soften its policy of ticketing people camping, resting or panhandling.

The move became a lightning rod for criticism from opponents who argued it led to a boom in homeless encampments across the city. As early numbers came in Saturday, Gov. Greg Abbott, a vocal critic, praised the proposition’s likely passage.

The effort to get Prop B on the ballot was spearheaded by the political action committee Save Austin Now, which submitted a petition in February to trigger the referendum. The PAC is helmed by Travis County GOP Chair Matt Mackowiak and Cleo Petricek, a Democrat who’s been outspoken against Austin’s homelessness policies since 2019, when the city tried to build a shelter in South Austin.

Petricek told KUT she wasn’t surprised by the turnout and hoped city leaders would take voters’ “rebuke” of the current policies to heart.

“I think what you saw with the election turnout is it obviously wasn’t a partisan issue, and obviously I was never the only Democrat,” she said. “A lot of Democrats feel the same way. The city failed to roll (policies) out with a viable plan.”

Mackowiak tweeted shortly after returns began coming in, calling the win a “clear message … that a majority of Austinites will no longer tolerate failed policies that harm standard of living.”

Homes Not Handcuffs, a coalition involved in legal challenges to the city ordinances prior to 2019, led the opposition to Prop B. A majority of City Council also opposed the measure, including Council Member Greg Casar, who led the effort to roll back rules in 2019.

Casar said he was disappointed with the result and said the turnout was a clear indication of “a much stronger community will.” Still, he added, issues for Austinites living outdoors have gotten worse because of the pandemic and a reinstatement of bans shouldn’t be the prime focus.

“We have to respond to that distress with real solutions,” he said. “Proposition B isn’t that, but I know that folks have been searching for a solution, and I want to respect that.”

In a statement shortly before votes were counted, Mayor Steve Adler said the reinstated rules will take effect May 11.

The city is still moving ahead with its so-called HEAL initiative, which will prohibit encampments in certain areas after people living there are connected with housing. The city also recently laid out a plan to acquire 3,000 housing units for people transitioning out of homelessness in the next three years.

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

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