Visible homeless encampments have become more popular since 2019, when the city lifted its ban on camping, sitting, and lying in public. The visible human suffering has sparked a political fire.
"I know from discussions that I’ve had with other city leaders that the homeless situation has gotten out of hand," said Council Member Mackenzie Kelly. Kelly, who represents District 6, won her December run-off on a platform that largely focused on homelessness.
Nonprofit "Save Austin Now," is pushing to reinstate the camping ban, and has gathered enough signatures to bring the issue before voters in May. Governor Greg Abbott says he will reinstate the ban if Austin does not.
"It’s very important that we don’t hide the problem, right? Hiding a problem and solving a problem are not the same thing," argued João Paulo, director of housing and community development for the Austin Justice Coalition.
Paulo, like most Austin-area advocates and elected officials, is not in favor of reinstating the ban. Still, Paulo, like most, believes something needs to change.
"The time to act is now to get these unhoused individuals into housing and out of dangerous unsafe and unsanitary conditions." said Kelly.
Looking at potential long-term solutions the Austin Justice Coalition and Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, or ECHO, announced a new initiative Monday, the "How to House" campaign, which recruits property owners to partner with ECHO to increase low barrier housing opportunities.
"This is just another step in the right direction, and this is something that could make a big impact if we’re all able to make that choice." said advocate Lyric Wardlow.
At the same time ECHO and the AJC unveiled their plan Monday, Austin City Council discussed homelessness in a work session. This Wednesday, they plan to vote on whether they should purchase two hotels, in Central and Northwest Austin and convert them into housing.
Council Member Mackenzie Kelly says she plans to delay that vote so she can get feedback from those who live near the northwest site before making a decision. "The hotel itself backs up to two single-family residential homes their backyards, and then they’re in very close proximity to another single-family residential community," Kelly explained.
In the meantime, Kelly has publicly come out in support of Council Member Ann Kitchen’s new HEAL initiative. It will be on the agenda at next week's council meeting.
"This initiative is different because it actually directs our homeless strategy officer and the city manager to connect people who are living in particularly dangerous and unsafe conditions to the services that will help lift them out of homelessness," said Kelly.
Speakers at the ECHO and AJC press conference were asked about the sudden surge in housing initiatives, and why they feel theirs cuts through the noise. Wardlow described the initiatives as working in tandem, not competition, calling it another "piece of the puzzle."