(The Center Square) – Save Austin Now and four businesses are suing the city of Austin, claiming it is not fully implementing Proposition B, a measure passed overwhelmingly by voters to end public homeless encampments in the state capital.
The group has battled City Hall for two years after the Democratic-led city council reversed an existing law that prohibited public encampments, resulting in tent cities popping up on sidewalks throughout Austin. A growing homeless population began living in public parks and near schools and playgrounds, in addition to spots under overpasses and near highways.
The group’s bipartisan citizen movement and petition campaign ultimately resulted in an election held May 1, with voters supporting removing homeless encampments.
Proposition B makes it a criminal offense to sit or lie on sidewalks in the downtown area, to camp in public areas, or solicit or aggressively solicit money or other things of value at specific hours and locations in Austin. The crime is a class C misdemeanor, carrying a fine of up to $500.
After the ballot proposition passed, homeless camps weren’t immediately removed. The city instead said it was implementing a plan in phases over a 90-day window. The last of four phases began Aug. 8 involving Austin Police Department (APD) officers issuing citations and arresting those who violate the camping ordinance who do not voluntarily leave.
The city states, “Since May 11, Austin Police Department officers have visited more than 605 people experiencing homelessness at encampments and other areas across Austin. Officers have issued 572 written warnings and 24 citations. No arrests have been made related to the camping ban to date. Officers have connected more than 124 people with social support services, which includes referrals for 34 veterans.”
It adds that its approach is “responsible and humane.”
But Matt Mackowiak, co-founder of Save Austin Now, said in a news release, “It is undeniable that Prop B is not being fully enforced” and homelessness is still very much an issue in Austin.
The group also previously took issue with how the city administered tens of millions of dollars in funds to address homelessness.
“Taxpayers deserve to know how $160 million was spent over fiscal years 2018-2020 and what we have to show for it,” Mackowiak said in June. “Because it appears the money has been widely spent on waste, with precious little new homeless housing being made available despite massive investment.”
More than 2,000 people are still waiting for housing alternatives from the city “after more than two years and at least $161 million spent,” he added. Austin NPR puts that number at more than 3,000, adding that the city’s efforts to find short-term housing hasn’t helped get most of the people off the streets.
The lawsuit was filed in Travis County District Court and asks the court to require the city to fully enforce the public camping ban and remove all homeless tents and camps.
The four Austin business owners joining the lawsuit say they have been caused financial harm as a result of the city not fully enforcing the ordinance. They include Laura North of Headspace Salon and Co-op; Stuart Dupuy of Balance Dance Studios; Robert Mayfield, owner of three Dairy Queen franchises; and Bob Woody, owner of Buckshot Bar.
According to the complaint, the businesses have incurred "substantial expenses to protect their property, their customers and their clients."
City spokesman Andy Tate said in a statement that city officials “received this lawsuit and entirely reject its premise."
The city also notes that its phased approach focuses only on homeless camps that existed prior to the new ordinance going into effect May 11, 2021. Homeless individuals who set up new camps after this date are subject to immediate notification of violation, and enforcement action, if necessary, the city says.
It adds that multiple entities are involved in addressing the homeless issue, including Austin Resource Recovery, Parks and Recreation, Public Works and Watershed Protection. The agencies conduct regularly scheduled clean ups at underpasses, parks, and creeks.
Their teams are “finding many abandoned encampments, allowing them to make final clean ups to public spaces,” the city adds. “These ongoing efforts are independent of activities related to implementation of the camping ordinance.”