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  • Writer's pictureTalia Hill

Homeless Become More Visible in Austin, Sparking Political Clash

In 10 years of off-and-on homelessness, Rebecca Wallace has lived in the shadows of Texas’ capital city. Once, while living behind a shopping mall, she said a beating by a group of men put her in intensive care for weeks.

Now, Ms. Wallace sleeps on an inflatable mattress under a freeway in the city’s busy tourist district, along with a growing number of other homeless people. She moved to that area after Austin in July became the first major Texas city to allow public camping, in practice allowing people to reside legally on sidewalks and rights of way for the first time.

“There’s safety in numbers,” Ms. Wallace said. “We’re just trying to stay alive out here the best we can.”

The rising visibility of homelessness here is sparking a backlash. Some residents, police and business leaders have complained that people living on sidewalks are leaving trash, frightening other residents walking at night and creating a health hazard.

Some conservative state politicians say Austin is heading down the path of West Coast cities like San Francisco with large, highly visible homeless populations and are threatening to take action. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s office has said that if the city doesn’t show improvement by Nov. 1, the Texas Department of Transportation will begin clearing encampments under the bridges of state-owned roadways.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler, a Democrat, said he didn’t expect so many people to begin camping in public and is open to adjusting the policy, but won’t return to pushing homeless people out of sight.

Mr. Adler, who has met with his counterparts in cities such as Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland to gather advice on homelessness, said the city will distinguish itself by focusing on the issue before it worsens. “We were on the path to become Seattle or those other places until we said, ‘No, let’s deal with this,’” he said.

Spats and threats have become commonplace between conservative Texas leaders and the left-leaning leaders of its cities. Austin, which has long prided itself on its progressive politics, has been the biggest target of GOP state politicians who work there.

A point-in-time count last year found 1,014 unsheltered homeless people in Austin and surrounding Travis County, which has a population of about 1.2 million. That number has increased by more than 30% in the past five years. Los Angeles, by contrast has some 37,570 unsheltered homeless in a region of about 10 million people, and San Francisco had 4,353 in a population of 883,305.

Mr. Abbott has encouraged Austin residents to tweet photos or videos of homeless people behaving badly and has retweeted those posts on his personal account, including photos of people Twitter users claim accosted them.

In a recent tweet of his own, the governor compared Austin unfavorably with Dallas, which has a larger homeless population. “I spent 3 days in downtown Dallas & saw ZERO homeless laying around or camping on sidewalks. No feces & no used needles,” he wrote. “Austin’s problem isn’t the homeless; it’s lack of leadership.”

Mr. Abbott’s office said it is still considering how to address homelessness in Texas, including where people would be ordered to go if removed from alongside roadways.

Gary Painter, director of the Homelessness Policy Research Institute at the University of Southern California, said policies banning people from sleeping in public simply move the problem around. He attributed high homelessness on the West Coast to population outstripping housing supply, a growing problem in Austin as the number of residents has risen along with its technology-driven economy, driving up housing prices.

David Kruger, whose family jewelry store has been in Austin for 80 years, said people are sleeping in front of his store for the first time he can remember.

“Whether it has affected my business is hard to quantify, but my gut says yes,” he said. “It’s definitely affected people’s perception of downtown.”

After more than six hours of debate, Austin’s city council last week voted to disallow camping on sidewalks and near business doorways, but still permits people to camp on other public rights of way.

Earlier this year, Austin appointed a homeless strategy officer, Lori Pampilo Harris, who immediately helped roll out plans including one to target people in encampments proactively with services.

But Ms. Pampilo Harris left after only a month and said she would instead help the city as a consultant. She called the decision personal and said she remains optimistic that Austin has the right blend of political will and community engagement to tackle the issue.

“There’s a difference between not wanting to see the homeless and ending homelessness,” she said.

By Elizabeth Findell

The Wall Street Journal

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