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Austin voters approve proposition aimed at reinstating public camping ban

By voting in favor of Proposition B, voters have approved making it illegal to camp in certain public spaces in Austin.

AUSTIN, Texas — Austin voters have approved Proposition B, which aims to reinstate the public camping ban that was reversed in July 2019. The results were 57% to 43%, with the majority voting to approve the proposition.

The camping ban makes it illegal to camp in any public area not designated by the Parks and Recreation Department; to sit or lie on a public sidewalk or sleep outdoors in and near the downtown area and the area around the University of Texas campus; and to panhandle at specific hours and locations.

Both support for and opposition to the proposition was strong in the months leading up to the election, and controversy has swirled around public camping and homelessness in general in Austin since the camping ban was first reversed nearly two years ago.

RELATED: What is Proposition B on Austin's May ballot?

As results rolled in on Saturday night, Austin Mayor Steve Adler issued a statement, saying the vote on both sides has to be seen as an expression of the popular will to end tenting:

"If it passes it will go into effect on May 11, once the election is certified.

"One thing seems pretty clear, people on both sides of this issue want to see public camping end. This election underscores that we need to accelerate and scale a solution to end camping.

"Our next step is to get people out of tents and into better, safer places with the critical services needed to keep them out of tents.

"We must pool our resources to get our unhoused residents into homes, and that will take the whole community rallying together to commit to this cause.

"Austin has a real opportunity to lead nationally on homelessness if we band together. I am committed to getting our residents out of tents. I will continue to work with my colleagues and our Summit partners to house 3,000 people in the next three years and accelerate moving people out of encampments and into better, safer places. We can do this if we commit to this cause."

Austin City Councilmember Greg Casar said Proposition B was not a solution to homelessness in Austin.

"As results roll in, I expect the results for Prop B will get closer," said Casar. "But I do not believe Austin is as divided as this election makes it seem. The overwhelming majority of Austinites share a common goal, no matter how folks voted on Prop B. We all want to get people out of tents and into homes. Our community must come together after this election and house 3,000 more people, because we can only solve homelessness with homes, not handcuffs."

Without a solution to homelessness written into Prop B, Casar believes it will take a mix of public and private funding to solve the issues facing people experiencing homelessness.

"It's really on the community, philanthropy, nonprofits, the City and the County to come together and pass a budget for housing folks who are experiencing homelessness," Casar said.

In February 2020, the PAC Save Austin Now started a petition to put an item on the November 2020 ballot to reinstate the City's camping ban. In August, the City clerk ruled that the group's petition did not succeed due to an insufficient number of signatures.

Save Austin Now continued its efforts to get the item on a ballot, starting a second petition. A day after the group reportedly secured enough signatures to potentially put the item on the May ballot, Gov. Greg Abbott announced that if Austin didn’t elect to reinstate its camping ban, the State would step in.

In February 2021, the City Clerk’s Office certified Save Austin Now’s petition, and the Austin City Council approved ballot language.

That month, the city council also voted to pass its amended HEAL initiative, which would partially reinstate the camping ban going forward. The initiative's aim is to remove those experiencing homelessness from four high-traffic areas in Austin and connect them with housing and shelters. The first phase of the initiative is expected to be completed by late this summer. It is unclear at this time if or how the reinstatement of the ban will affect that initiative.

On Saturday night, Save Austin Now tweeted, "WE JUST WON BIG-LY."

Save Austin Now PAC held a watch party on Saturday night. City Council Member Mackenzie Kelly was in attendance. She spoke about the steps City Council needs to take now that the ban is reinstated. 

"We need to have an interim solution other than just housing first," said Kelly. "We have designated camp areas across the city where it is okay for someone to camp. We still need to be involved in those wrap-around services to lift them out of there situation."

RELATED: Austin's homeless strategy officer reveals blueprint for addressing homeless camps

Proposition B was not without opposition in its journey to the ballot.

Homes Not Handcuffs led a big push for people to vote against Prop B. Chris Harris, from Homes Not Handcuffs, argued passing the proposition would hamstring the efforts made to help those experiencing homelessness.

"What we saw when we had ordinances like this in the past is that we went years without really adding shelter beds, without adding housing capacity for people experiencing homelessness," Harris said ahead of the polls closing. "The City will have to figure out how it's going to enforce these, but I think we can also expect legal challenges."

In March, area Democrats launched a campaign against Proposition B. Those involved said they believe passing the proposition would be a step in the wrong direction for people experiencing homelessness in Austin.

Also in March, following a series of fires at Austin-area homeless camps, several local leaders spoke out against Proposition B, including Mayor Pro-Tem Natasha Harper-Madison, City Councilmember Casar and Chas Moore with the Austin Justice Coalition.

Last month, Texas lawmakers heard Senate Bill 987, which would establish a statewide public camping ban and impose fines and penalties for camping in a public place.

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