In an effort to reinstate the ordinance limiting where people experiencing homelessness can camp, an Austin-based nonprofit started a petition Feb. 24 to put the issue on the November 2020 ballot.
Save Austin Now is a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization started August 2019 to “educate and mobilize Austin residents about critical quality of life issues,” according to the organization’s website. The petition through Change.org currently has more than 95,400 signatures.
In July, the Austin City Council lifted a ban on camping, sitting and lying on public streets. City Council later revised the rules in October, ruling that camping on all city sidewalks will be banned, but sitting and lying down will not, unless it is 15 feet from a business, according to a KVUE report.
“We are focused on standard of living issues in the city and educating residents on standard living issues,” said Matt Mackowiak, co-founder of Save Austin Now and chairman of the Travis County GOP. “(This coalition) is the product of several months. After the council made modest changes to the ordinance, it became clear to us that a lot of the Council was not going to consider rescinding the rest of the ordinance or making any other changes.”
Mackowiak said the organization met with attorneys and came to an agreement on bill language with three main goals: reinstating the ban on homeless camping, restricting panhandling from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. and reinstating the sit-and-lie ordinance downtown to cover the University’s campus, as well as 2.5 miles around it.
“(The language) is a model based on and perfected by the University of Southern California that has kept their campus very safe,” Mackowiak said. “We believe (homeless camping) is a safety issue. There is really no reason to allow homeless people to sleep on a park bench if we are not allowing them (to) camp in certain areas.”
SafeHorns president Joell McNew said the organization will provide vocal support for Save Austin Now. SafeHorns is a coalition of parents, students and stakeholders concerned about crime, McNew said.
“(The lift on the homeless camping ban) wasn’t really shared with the UT community and students and stakeholders, who already are concerned about safety,” McNew said. “That’s why it’s important to bring it to the ballot so this gives a larger opportunity for people to ask questions, have comments and weigh in.”
Julian Reyes, member of Stop the Sweeps Austin, said his organization is a group of community members fighting against issues like these, and he does not support Save Austin Now.
“What (the police) call cleanups are not cleanups, they are sweeps,” Reyes said. “They’re destroying lives. What they are doing is illegal, immoral and unethical. It is genocide to people of color and genocide to the working class who cannot afford to live here.”
Reyes said he also plans on standing his ground and suing Save Austin Now.
“This issue is about tourism, the economy, public safety and public health,” Mackowiak said. “We really believe this ordinance would be a massive safety improvement for UT students, for UT employees and for teachers and administrators.”