Like other tech or college communities in otherwise red states, Austin, Texas has stood out for some time in the Lonestar State. The home of Dell, it attracted a deluge of employees in the tech industry beginning in the late ’80’s. Dell founder Michael Dell had unprecedented success begining with sales out of his college dormitory at the University of Austin and located his company just outside of Austin in Round Rock.
“Keep Austin Weird” was originally a slogan used to promote small business in Austin. It eventually morphed into a sociopolitcal slogan and became commercialized. This evolution was actually doumented in a book called Weird City: Sense of Place and Creative Resistance in Austin, Texas, by Joshua Long.
What this ‘sense of place’ seems to have brought to Austin is, at least in part, it’s progenitor’s sensibilites. Like the Bay Area, a sense of misguided social justice masked as compassion will be literally strewn all over Austin’s streets.
Just like areas of California, Austin has given the homeless nearly unfettered access to camping on city property. As of July 1st, people will be able to sleep, lie and set up tents on city-owned sidewalks, plazas and vacant non-park space. There is a caveat that the individuals may not present a hazard or danger, but what might constitute these is not specific.
While the ban on camping has been lifted in many areas, there are notable exceptions. There are policies excepting the City Hall complex. This dates back to when Occupy protestors set up camp there for months during the Occupy protests in 2011 and 2012.
Additionally, Austin Police Department property and space under the control of Austin Parks and Recereation have policies against camping that have not been lifted. However during a recent press conference reported by the Statesman, a homeless man slept on the steps of the police department while Chief Brian Manley spoke.
The city council also removed the prohibitions on panhandling, sitting and sleeping in public which is causing concern for some business owners. Just looking at Eventbrite, Austin has a robust conference and meeting industry. One has to wonder how attractive a destination it will remain with the lifting of many ordinaces related to vagrancy. Or whether it will become a destination for those now flooding the streets of Los Angeles and San Francisco.
After implementing similar policies, California cities have seen disease outbreaks, sanitation issues and increasing rates of drug abuse. A report from San Francisco actually showed they had more drug addicts than high school students in the city. San Diego saw an outbreak of Hepititis A and Los Angeles has seen thyphus. There are also increasing rodent popluations in these cities.
This move did catch the attention of Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who said in a tweet that this is a type of ordinance the state will override prior to the lifting of the ordinances.
While I applaud his sentiment, the case here is not clean cut to me. While I believe there was a legitimate state interest to ban sanctuary cities to ensure compliance with federal immigration law, this is not as clear cut. It seems this issue is really up to the residents of Austin and their leaders to sort out. If the residents object, they need to elect new leaders. A significant homelssness problem presents many challenges. However, lifting up your hands and saying pretty much anything goes may not fly at the local level.
Local reporting in the Statesman does indicate the effects of these actions will remain under review. They are collecting information from law enforcement and other community groups to see how it is impacting residents and businesses. If the Facebook post above is any indication the feedback may not be a resounding endorsement of the new leinency.
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