Austin, San Antonio mayors discuss the politics of fighting homelessness

Graysen Golter

Considering citizen reactions to Austin City Council’s recent moves to amend policies on homeless camping, Austin Mayor Steve Adler said he has “never felt more encouraged” to end homelessness in Austin.  

“Most people are in favor of us actually ending homelessness in our city and are supportive of this focused attention that’s happening now,” Adler said. “There’s a part of the population that is adamantly opposed to what’s happening. They’re very loud, and they’re very present, but I have never felt more encouraged … than I am right now.”

Adler met with San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and homelessness experts from across the state at the Texas Tribune Festival’s “Gimme Shelter” panel, where they discussed the current trend of homelessness across Texas, the cause of homelessness and what both government officials and the general community can do to help.

Adler said the rate of homelessness correlates with the housing market, and said the City of Austin inadvertently made rent unaffordable to people living east of Interstate 35 when actions were taken to decrease crime and increase amenities in the area, such as grocery stores. 

“Gentrification is a good thing … but there is a difference between gentrification and displacement,” Adler said.

 Nirenberg said the recent report released by the Council of Economic Advisers calling for more policing and less housing market regulations to solve homelessness will only further politicize the difficult conversations needed to solve it.

“It’s a dispassionate approach, and I think it sets us back,” Nirenberg said. 

Blake Fetterman, executive director of the Carr P. Collins Social Service Center of the Salvation Army of North Texas, said Dallas saw a 40% increase in overall homelessness in 2015. She said while more affordable housing would help, issues of mental health and domestic violence also should be addressed. 

Eva Thibaudeau, chief program officer for the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston, said Houston has been able to decrease its homeless population by 54% since 2011 by reaching out to vulnerable people and quickly getting them the resources they need. However, she said Texas needs increased funding to implement solutions and suggested expanding Medicaid and creating a state tax. 

“(We have) very few funds dedicated to addressing homelessness or preventing it that aren’t federal taxpayer dollars,” Thibaudau said. “We … should be looking upstream and challenging our neighbors … (to) be saying ‘We are barely, barely keeping the dam together right now.”