McNeely: Abbott to Austin: Clean up homelessness

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is warning Austin Mayor Steve Adler his city needs to deal with its homeless problem by Nov. 1 or he will send in state agencies to do it.

Adler oversaw the Austin City Council’s relaxation in June of the city’s homeless no-camping ordinance, which resulted in a flood of tent camps along sidewalks and under overpasses.

“As the Governor of Texas,” Abbott wrote in a letter last week, “I have the responsibility to protect the health and safety of all Texans, including Austin residents.

“Further inaction by you and the Austin City Council will leave me no choice other than to use the tools available to the State of Texas to ensure that people are protected from health and safety concerns caused by the Austin homeless policies.”

Abbott, a Republican with a record of ordering around local governments, said unless the city demonstrates “consequential improvement in the Austin homelessness crisis,” he would assign state agencies like the Department of Public Safety and Texas Health and Human Services Commission to work on it.

Adler replied, in so many words, “Great. We sure could use the help.”

“This is a community right now that is locked on the goal of ending homelessness,” Adler said. “It would be easier, it would happen more rapidly if we had the state’s support and I would welcome that assistance.”

That would include cleaning up encampments under overpasses and providing toilets for the homeless. The police department says it doesn’t need additional help to enforce laws concerning trespassing, aggressive confrontation and public defecation, he said.

“The governor wants to see action by [Nov. 1],” Adler said, according to The Texas Tribune. “My hope is that the governor starts to see action by next week.”

The Travis County Republican Party is petitioning for the relaxation of the ordinance prohibiting homeless camping to be rescinded.

“Homeless people are camping on sidewalks downtown (in front of businesses), there have been several violent attacks, and they continue to camp in parks and on private property, believing that they either won’t be reported to police or police won’t remove them,” said Travis County GOP Chairman Matt Mackowiak. “It is time to rescind this policy which is bad for tourism, the Austin economy, public safety and public health.”

Adler said he understands and is sensitive to “the angst and concern.”

“But we didn’t create more people experiencing homelessness,” Adler said. “We see it now. And I am told that because we are seeing them more now, the support groups of the city are now able to give assistance and help to more people than they have ever been able to do before.”

He welcomed the prospect of state assistance in addressing what he characterized as a state and national issue. And he said he hoped the governor’s office would be a part of upcoming city meetings to monitor progress and see where state assistance would be useful.

“This is a community right now that is locked on the goal of ending homelessness,” Adler said. “It would be easier, it would happen more rapidly if we had the state’s support and I would welcome that assistance.”

Ed Espinoza, executive director of Progress Texas, a Democratic-leaning group, said the governor indeed should get involved.

“While Gov. Greg Abbott points the finger at Austin, the entire state he governs is dealing with homelessness,” Espinoza wrote. “What do Austin, Dallas, Frisco, Houston, McKinney and Odessa all have in common? They are all dealing with homeless Texans.

“And while Austin is getting a lot of attention on this issue now,” Espinoza said, “the truth is that many cities around Texas are struggling and have received little in the way of state and federal assistance.

He pointed to HR 1856, the “Ending Community Homelessness Act of 2019” as one solution that’s pending before Congress.

“Gov. Abbott should consider a similar initiative on behalf of the state,” Espinoza said. “He should put his money where his mouth is.”

It might also help if Abbott would accept federal Medicaid expansion, if that’s still possible, which the state passed up in 2013 under former Gov. Rick Perry. The decision was continued by Abbott when he became governor in 2015.

That decision has cost the state about $100 billion over 10 years, less the approximately $10 billion Texas would need to put in over the period. It would add health care for about 1 million currently uninsured Texans.

— Dave McNeely is an Austin-based columnist covering Texas politics. His column appears Thursday.

Today's Bible verse

“Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”

— Psalm 42:11

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