AUSTIN, Texas - A lengthy list of impassioned callers preceded an Austin City Council vote in favor of purchasing a Northwest Austin hotel and repurposing the building as permanent supportive housing for the homeless population.
"I think the location is perfect for housing our homeless neighbors. There are multiple bus stops nearby, multiple grocery stores nearby, dozens, if not hundreds, of employers nearby," said caller Preston Manis.
"By allowing individuals with severe mental health and substance abuse problems into our neighborhood, you’re jeopardizing our safety," said Bianca Ramirez, who also called into Thursday's council meeting.
Council agreed to spend $9.5 million on the Candlewood Suites hotel to help get people off the street and into a safer environment. Only councilwoman Mackenzie Kelly, District 6, voted against the purchase.
Council members also approved the housing-focused Homeless Encampment Assistance Link, or HEAL, initiative. That will ban camping in four areas of the city which are current hotspots for homeless tents.
People in those areas will be prioritized to receive supportive housing services. Although the initiative outlines that prohibited camping areas will not be enforced by police and cannot result in citations, several callers voiced concerns that it was a step towards criminalizing homelessness.
"We really need to just step up to the plate and, very robustly, identify folks who need our help. We have the help to give. We have the homes for them and we want to move them out of spaces that are not safe," said Councilwoman Leslie Pool, District 7.
"The goal has to be to actually address and solve homelessness with housing, and I think that is right for us to be very careful to make sure that we are not intentionally or unintentionally leading down a path towards violating the civil rights of people who aren’t doing anything wrong," said Councilman Greg Casar, District 4.
"This is not about moving people to temporary space or throwing their things out," said Councilwoman Ann Kitchen, District 5.
People in Austin will get the chance to take a vote of their own on the city's controversial homeless policies this coming May. Save Austin Now, a group working to reinstate a ban on homeless camping, turned in more than 25,000 signatures that have since been certified by the City Clerk's office.
"Our city has failed our homeless, period. We are saying, 'Let's go back to where we were before' when camping was not allowed. And let's put the pressure and accountability back on the city. Deliver the housing you said you would deliver. It's been a year and a half, you've done almost nothing,'" said Matt Mackowiak, co-founder of Save Austin Now.
Austin City Council has until February 12 to approve ballot language.