Gov. Abbott asks city to alleviate homelessness, threatens state intervention

Lauren Girgis

Gov. Greg Abbott addressed a letter to Mayor Steve Adler and the Austin City Council on Wednesday demanding the city improve the issue of homelessness, or the state would take action. 

City Council has disagreed about a homelessness ordinance passed in June, which lifted restrictions on where people could camp in Austin. After the ordinance was passed, Abbott said in a tweet that the state would override the ordinance permitting camping on city streets. City Council will vote Oct. 17 to update the camping ordinances. 

“If Austin does not fix this homeless crisis by November the first, I will unleash the full authority of every state agency to protect the health and safety of all Texans,” Abbott said in a video posted on Twitter. 

In his letter, Abbott said businesses are struggling to keep people experiencing homelessness off sidewalks, encampments are interfering with the flow of traffic, and feces and used needles are accumulating in public spaces. 

Abbott said in the letter he could direct state agencies to act if the crisis does not improve, including the Department of State Health Services, the Department of Public Safety and the Department of Transportation. Abbott said these agencies could conduct investigations to control disease, add troopers to areas of Austin that “pose greater threats” and remove homeless property blocking roadways.  

At a press conference Wednesday, Adler said while he understood Abbott’s rhetoric both as state governor and a constituent of Austin, he said it is important to get people experiencing homelessness into homes, not send them back into less visible, unsafe areas. 

“Our neighbors, our fellow Texans, don’t disappear,” Adler said. “They just go somewhere else. Wherever they go, they would again be in a place where they should not be. Our community (has) to fix the challenge, to do something about homelessness being experienced by our neighbors.” 

Eric Samuels is the president and CEO of Texas Homeless Network, a nonprofit advocating to end homelessness in Texas according to the official website. Samuels said he disagrees with Abbott’s statement that homelessness has dramatically increased in Austin as the number of people experiencing homelessness only increased by 5% from 2018, which is slightly above the average 2.25% increase in homelessness across the state.  

“Abbott’s right — he could deploy these state agencies to protect the welfare of citizens, but I don’t think we should exclude those experiencing homelessness from the definition of citizens,” Samuels said. “I would love the state to address homelessness in a more proactive, collaborative and compassionate way.” 

David Carter, UT Police Department chief, and Darrell Bazzell, UT’s senior vice president and CFO, asked Adler to prohibit camping from the perimeter of campus and West Campus in letters sent in August and September, respectively.

Adler said Austin is still enforcing laws which prohibit defecation and urination in public and impeding or blocking people’s abilities to use public places such as sidewalks. 

“There are some people that read this letter as a threat,” Adler said. “I want you to know I understand the seriousness of this letter, but I choose to read this letter as an offer of assistance. This is not a city challenge. It is a statewide challenge.”