Governor says homeless shouldn't be allowed to 'camp out on Congress Avenue'

Governor Greg Abbott is weighing in on the homeless situation in Austin. 

“Almost any strategy is superior to allowing people to camp out on places like Congress Avenue,” Abbott said.

He said his office is keeping a close eye on the health and safety hazards posed by the city removing several restrictions to camping on public property, but Mayor Steve Adler said it's simply not true that people camping downtown have free rein to do as they please. 

"If someone sees someone camping on the sidewalk obstructing passage yes you can call 911 and police can come and act," Adler said. "If you see anything that is creating public health harm, syringes or people defecating on the streets, then yes our ordinances prohibit that."

Still, one councilmember said allowing camping anywhere that isn't City Hall, private property or park land might go a little too far. 

“I believed and advocated for a strategy of identifying places, a place in every single council district, where camping would be permitted rather than lifting the camping ban citywide, but that was not the will of the council,” said Councilwoman Kathy Tovo, district 9.  

Since updating ordinances affecting the homeless population, the mayor is visiting Los Angeles to find out what lessons they've learned from their homeless crisis. 

“Why is the mayor now going to the west coast to figure out what the disaster is of the west coast after the vote was taken? The road to hell is paved with good intentions and these people are going to destroy what makes Austin special,” said John Doggett, senior lecturer at UT’s McCombs School of Business, who also advises cities about best economic practices. 

Abbott suggests Austin city leaders turn to their neighbor to the south for a better plan. 

“Probably the best template for this is a strategy that's been developed in San Antonio that I urge all communities to take a look at as the possible best practice, it's called Haven for Hope,” Abbott said.  

Haven for Hope’s 22-acre campus offers a low-barrier open air shelter, short-term residential housing, education, job training, healthcare, treatment options, child care, legal services and kennels for those who come in with pets. Staff there said it has helped decrease the downtown homeless population by 80 percent by moving more than 4,000 people into permanent housing.  

“The City of Austin has been looking at best practices nationwide. I have, along with city staff and others, gone down and toured Haven for Hope in San Antonio,” said Tovo.  

Doggett said treating people with addiction and mental health issues should be a priority, but allowing camping on city sidewalks will only drive visitors and business owners away and lead to higher taxes.

“The City Council seems to have forgotten their number one job is to take care of people who are paying taxes and to make sure that our quality of life is better,” Doggett said. "Our quality of life is getting worse."

One thing Austin city leaders said would help tackle homelessness in the city is additional funding from the private sector and the state.