Austin’s policy failures on homelessness are bordering on criminal negligence.
Heading into the downtown area, tents are visible under overpasses. A bit further from immediate view is evidence of more densely populated camps. A recent video from Save Austin Now shows just one of these encampments on the West Bouldin Creek trail. As those recording the video move through the camp a collection of tents, clothes, furniture, and garbage are strewn across a trail that is supposed to be used by the public to walk, jog, bike, and generally enjoy the natural features that have made Austin such an attractive place to live. Needles have been found on other visits to homeless camps. Clearing these camps has been something of a game of whack-a-mole, since the city does not properly enforce laws already on the books.
In May of 2021, the city of Austin passed Proposition B “making it a criminal offense (Class C misdemeanor punishable by a fine) for anyone to sit, lie down, or camp in public areas” along with prohibiting panhandling at specific house and locations in the city. In the same year, the Texas Legislature passed HB 1925, which placed a statewide ban on homeless camping in areas outside of those designated by a state officer or agency. These are good laws—but how much good can they do if they are not enforced?
The problem has gotten to the point that several business owners have come together to sue the city of Austin for lack of enforcement of Proposition B. These business owners have been subject to burglaries, have witnessed drug deals out in the open, and are increasingly having to share space with illegal homeless camps. Business owners have also had to resort to hiring private security to protect their businesses.
These camps are not dangerous simply due to the crime that they breed. They could also pose a threat to life and property. In fact, on the morning of Sept. 7, with the current drought that Texas is facing, an errant campfire caused a brushfire that burned acres of dry grass, threatening homes and businesses. Luckily, there were no injuries. But should the camping ban continue to go unenforced, the possibility of one of these fires spreading out of control will continue to hang over our heads.
While Austin’s policies are an example of what happens when laws go unenforced, there are other cities that are taking this issue seriously. Recently, Dallas has allocated money for clearing and cleaning these camps, while also putting up fences as a deterrent for areas prone to attracting homeless camps, such as overpasses and areas outside immediate visibility.
Passing laws is one thing; enforcing them is another. Failing to enforce laws sends the message that protecting public health and safety is not a priority. Homelessness is a complex issue with many underlying causes—one of the most glaring of which is poor public policy.