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February 14, 2020

Austin mayor speaks on struggle to fix homelessness at first-ever Midyear summit

The governor is tweeting demands, even threatening to get directly involved in local affairs. Some of the local citizenry is in an uproar. But the mayor and the city council are not backing down when it comes to standing up for the homeless in Austin, Texas.

“Nothing has ripped apart this city as homelessness and dealing with this issue head-on” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler, the keynote speaker for the 2-day summit from the American Bar Association Center for Public Interest Law called, “Defending Liberty, Pursing Justice: Homelessness, Gun Violence, Immigration,” on Feb. 14 at the ABA Midyear Meeting in Austin. The summit featured programming showcasing innovations in advocacy and the delivery of holistic legal services and pro bono through a race-equity lens.

Adler shared the city’s struggle to address homelessness, one of the key topics of the first-of-its-kind conference. 

“I will tell you that I really do believe that it is the political-wedge issue of our time. If you see what’s happening in California, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle and so many other places. It is an issue,” he said.

Homelessness is not a new issue in Austin, it had just been hidden, according to Adler, a public interest lawyer who has been mayor for five years. It was only after Adler worked with the council to lift the city’s 25-year ban on sitting, lying or camping on public land that the homeless problem came into public view. Because of the ban, the homeless lived in the woods, by the streams and under overpasses out of sight of the public. But the problem was there.

“When I got elected, the city dove into First Lady Michelle Obama’s initiative of veterans’ homelessness. We were able to rally the community behind that and I thought I had figured out the formula for dealing with homelessness,” Adler said. But as he tried to scale the program, “I soon found that so many were participating in that because they wanted to help vets, but they didn’t want to help people who were experiencing homelessness. I wasn’t sure what to do because there were so many things competing for resources, and homelessness was just not up there.”

Adler said he began looking at changing the city’s longstanding no- sitting, no-camping ordinance. He said that between 2014-16, the city wrote 18,000 tickets to people who were experiencing homelessness but were not presenting a public safety risk nor presenting a public health hazard. “They were just there,” he said. “As you can imagine, very few of those people showed up in court to pay the fines. Six months, eight months later they are not eligible for a job or housing because now they had an arrest record.”

So, the council began looking at changing the ordinance to make it legal to sit, lie or camp in public.

“We passed the ordinance and all hell broke loose,” Adler said. We have people who came out of our woods and our streams to the underpasses and side roads in our downtown area because it is safer. Yet our community was now seeing homelessness that existed in our city in a way that they had not seen before.”

The city’s homeless population is about 2,255, which Adler says is about average. It was 5% of the entire population last year. By way of comparison, Adler said Dallas homelessness went up 9%, Seattle (with 200,000 fewer residents than Austin) went up five times as high as Austin and the homeless rate is up about 16% in Los Angeles.

“The issue of homelessness is a hard conversation to have, especially when it resonates politically,’’ Adler said. “Look at the national debate where the president is engaging with the governor of California over its homeless situation.”

Many in the city, Adler said, began to complain about the homeless and said the problem didn’t exist before the ordinance change. Even Texas Gov. Greg Abbott sent two letters to the mayor urging the city to reinstate the camping ban. “I receive tweets from my governor every two or three days,’’ Adler said. But city officials have resisted, though they’ve made some changes to the ordinance.

“We know what works in terms of dealing with this challenge,” Adler said. You have to get people into homes, and you have to get them services. In Austin, we are 95 percent successful if we can just do those two things.  Two years after we take somebody in off the streets, they are still no longer experiencing homelessness.”

Adler said the city works with law enforcement, local nonprofits and other organizations to find jobs and housing for the homeless. Progress has been slow but there is progress, he said, noting that they have taken half of the homeless children off the streets and predicts that “by the end of this year we will again reach effective zero among children who are experiencing homelessness.”

The mayor said the change in ordinance has artificially created the same level of discomfort and political angst that exists in other major cities dealing with homelessness. But he said he’s challenged his staff to embrace the challenge.

“One of two things is going to happen. Either we will use the power of this moment of this controversy that has been created because of our ordinance change that will actually end homelessness in this city or I will be, as the governor says, back practicing law.

“But my sense is that this community will stay with me on this to the degree that I can demonstrate that there is a reason for hope. If I lose that measure of hope, I will lose this community. It is a big challenge.”

The ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty offers ways for lawyers to assist those experiencing homelessness, including the Homeless Youth Legal Network (HYLN), the Homeless and Low-Income Veterans Justice Initiative, the Anti-Poverty Initiative and the Homeless Courts Initiative. In particular, new attorneys interested in working with homeless youth and looking to make a difference can join HYLN in its efforts and gain invaluable legal experience.