Austin Mayor Stephen Adler says the city’s homeless population is scared and has nowhere to go.
Gov. Greg Abbott gave Adler an ultimatum to fix the city’s homeless crisis by Nov. 1 or the state would step in.
Abbot made good on his promise as the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT) began clearing homeless communities under some of the city's highways this week after posting notices last week that the agency would be removing all remaining property housed under 17 overpasses.
“It’s a slow process and won’t be completed in one day, but steady progress is being made,” Abbott said. “Our goal is to make Austin safer while also providing better alternatives for the homeless.”
The cleanup is expected to be undertaken weekly, officials said.
"These areas can be rather unsafe for people experiencing homelessness as well as people traveling, so we want to do the best we can to make it as safe as possible,” TxDOT spokesman Bob Kaufman said.
Residents and business owners think the sweep of homeless encampments is a short-term solution to a widespread unresolved problem.
And the homeless in Austin say they have nowhere to go. One 38-year-old homeless man told the Texas Tribune, “Why can’t they figure out a solution besides ‘They can’t be under this bridge. Because there’s nowhere else to go. I’m not going back into the woods. No way, no how. You can’t just tell us to go without a solution, that’s wrong."
A public relations and Twitter exchange has also ensued between the governor and mayor over what the solution is – one in which the mayor says he’s being left in the dark.
Abbott announced that he met with U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Ben Carson “to discuss the homeless issue here in Austin. We talked about best strategies to reduce homelessness that ensure both compassion and public safety."
Adler was not privy to the meeting.
After the announcement, the mayor tweeted, “I hope Secretary Carson shared his homelessness advice that we should focus on getting people to a clean place and then to permanent housing with supportive services.”
Adler critics say that Austin already received $76 million in HUD funding and that former Austin Mayor Will Wynn found housing accommodations for 4,000 Louisianans affected by Hurricane Katrina, yet Adler and the City Council created the new problem by passing an ordinance rescinding a ban on homeless encampments in June, a move tens of thousands of residents openly protested against.
Abbott posted a video depicting Austin streets littered with human feces and syringes, saying, “Austin's policy of lawlessness has allowed vicious acts like this.”
But Adler pointed out that the posted video was two years old and had nothing to do with the ordinance that went into effect this summer.
“This isn't the first time you’ve fallen victim to social media trolls trying to mislead and scare Austinites," he said. "Let’s focus on actually ending homelessness.”
Abbott has also called asked citizens who witness the homeless engaging in potentially criminal behavior or dangerous conditions to tag Adler in their social media posts.
Many residents are calling for Adler to step down and have organized recall efforts. A new political action committee, Our Town Austin, began the petition process to recall more than half of Austin City Council members and the mayor.
Adler says the new city ordinance that decriminalized city camping “has simply brought people experiencing homelessness out of the shadows."
The purpose of allowing homeless to pitch their tents anywhere, he told Fox & Friends today, “"We did [this] so that we could fix it — so we could clean it up so that we could house people. We don't want people camping anywhere in the city."
Adler said the city has moved more than 400 people off the streets and into housing in the past two months.
“We're still trying to get more information on the governor’s plan, but we're focused on housing, not hiding,” he said.