Some UT-Austin students say they were misled into signing petition to reinstate homeless camping ban

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Photo Credit: Eddie Gaspar

Aswathi Thomas was at Zilker Metropolitan Park on Jan. 18 when a maskless man asked her and a friend to sign a petition he said would “help homeless people get off the streets.” 

Thomas, a marketing junior, signed the petition not knowing it was created by the nonprofit Save Austin Now, a group trying to reinstate the homeless camping ban that would bar people experiencing homelessness from setting up camps in the city.

Thomas isn’t the only UT student who said they felt misled into signing the petition, which Save Austin Now submitted last week with 27,000 signatures, according to reporting by the Austin American-Statesman. The city clerk has to verify 20,000 of the signatures. If approved, reinstating the homeless ban will be brought before voters on the May 1 election. 

“We just felt very misled,” Thomas said. “The way that the individual posed the petition to us, it very much seemed like it was something that was going to help homeless people and not necessarily criminalize them.” 

Matt Mackowiak, co-founder of Save Austin Now, said the organization has had fewer than 10 people ask to have their name taken off. 

“Anyone that asked to withdraw by the time we submitted, we gave their name to the city clerk,” Mackowiak said in an email.

Austin City Council member Ann Kitchen proposed a separate order to ban camping in four areas of the city and get housing for some people experiencing homelessness, according to the Austin American-Statesman. The proposal goes to a vote Feb. 4. 

Save Austin Now tried to have the city camping ban approved in the November election, but its petition was thrown out by the city clerk after an analysis showed it fell short by roughly 900 signatures, according to reporting by KVUE. Co-founders of Save Austin Now Mackowiak and Cleo Petricek filed a lawsuit against the City of Austin last November for allegedly tossing out signatures.

Mackowiak said it’s the city’s job to provide solutions for people experiencing homelessness, and he feels it has failed to do so. 

SafeHorns president Joell McNew is also part of the leadership coalition with Save Austin Now. McNew said she’s been advocating for restrictions on panhandling and camping. 

“When we attend safety conferences across the country with other colleges and universities … they do not have similar problems (as UT),” McNew said.

Thomas said she tried getting her name taken off after seeing a friend retweet a post by Bennett Burke, a history and political communication sophomore, offering to help people remove their names. By the time she reached out to him and the city clerk’s office, Save Austin Now had already submitted the petition. 

“(The petition) is not something that aligns with my views or beliefs in any way,” Thomas said. “And I just feel very frustrated that I was misled into signing it.”

Burke said he helped about two dozen people, the majority of which were UT students, get their names taken off the petition and that he was just one of many people helping do so. 

He said the group is not actually proposing any solutions to fix the problem of homelessness. 

“There’s a lot of disdain toward homeless people from both conservatives and liberals,” said Burke, who is the steering committee co-chair of UT Young Democratic Socialists of America. “There is a problem, but the problem is not homeless people.”