Texas’ homeless suffer due to lack of public housing as public camping is criminalized

Amid a housing affordability crisis, cities across the U.S. have been struggling with their unsheltered populations. Two years ago, Austin, Texas, decriminalized activities related to homelessness. But this year, citizens voted to re-criminalize them — as the state banned public camping. For our "Searching for Justice" series, Stephanie Sy reports on what these efforts mean for the unhoused.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, cities across the country are struggling with homelessness. Austin, Texas is among them.

    Two years ago, it decriminalized activities related to homelessness. Then, this year, citizens voted to reverse that. The Texas legislature also banned public camping statewide.

    Stephanie Sy reports.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Until very recently, this spot under a North Austin bridge was home for Freddie Williams.

    Is this where you were living? This is it?

  • Freddie Williams:

    Yes, this is it.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    For two years, the 47-year-old camped here, until getting in a fight with another camper that escalated. He says he left to avoid arrest.

    So this is just kind of what was left, and then people kind of rummaging through…

  • Freddie Williams:

    Pretty much.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    … to see what they could find of value.

  • Freddie Williams:

    Yes.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    A former oil worker, Williams says he once had a job, a home, and a family. But his divorce led to drinking, which led to losing his job. He committed forgery, which landed him in prison.

    Since getting out, he says he's struggled to find work and housing, and continues to struggle with drug abuse.

  • Freddie Williams:

    I felt like I had everything. I had it all figured out, had everything together, man. And then you get that monkey wrench thrown in there, and you figure out that you really don't know what's going on. And you try to plan stuff, man, and the plans never work out.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    What would it look like right now for you to have a second chance? Would that be housing? Would that be a job? What do you need?

  • Freddie Williams:

    Both, a house and a job.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    One of the country's fastest growing big cities, Austin is also one of its least affordable, with a median home price that recently hit almost $575,000.

    As the city has grown into a tech and culture hub, the problem of how to help the more than 2,000 unsheltered people has divided Austin.

  • Dianna Grey:

    The most important thing in getting people shelter or housed is having shelter or housing available.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Dianna Grey oversees the city's efforts to address homelessness. She asked to speak remotely amidst a surge in COVID cases.

  • Dianna Grey:

    The thing that is most correlated with an increase in homelessness is an increase in housing prices.

    And so, while lack of affordability isn't the sole cause of homelessness, it is what we see drive increases over time.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Two years ago, Austin's liberal-leaning City Council effectively made it legal to camp and sleep in some public places and panhandle. It was part of an effort to stop the revolving door from the jails to the streets, and to better help unsheltered residents connect with services.

    That move, along with COVID-19, which reduced capacity at shelters, made the city's homeless population visible to all. Many Austinites recoiled.

  • Woman:

    Well, the city of Austin will reinstate its homeless camping ban.

  • Woman:

    Over the weekend, voters passed Proposition B.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    In May, voters by a wide margin approved a measure which prohibits unsheltered people from sleeping in public, something advocates say they can't help but do.

    Now Austin police can issue citations with fines as high as $500 for sleeping on the streets, or even lying on a park bench. If violators fail to move or show up in court, they could be arrested.

  • Amanda Rios:

    What we have seen has caused trauma and have caused all sorts of unwarranted and unwanted chaos on our streets and in our city.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Amanda Rios supported Prop B. She and her husband have lived in their home in Northeast Austin for around 14 years.

    Because of their proximity to the highway, there have always been some homeless people nearby. But after the city stopped enforcing ordinances against public camping, she says things got much worse.

  • Amanda Rios:

    I go to the library and I see trash. I can't go to the park because there's homeless tents, there's drug needles. There's drug deals going down in the middle of the day.

    In front of our home, we heard and saw a woman being sex trafficked. And we saw the men going in and out of her tent. And we saw her and we heard her cries. And my husband — my children's window is close to the street. And they heard her.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    There are laws against drug and sex trafficking, and their enforcement has no direct connection to Prop B.

    But Rios says criminals exploit the homeless and hide among them.

  • Amanda Rios:

    I know people who were in drug trafficking, they were arrested, and it started an avenue for them to get help. And so they went to jail, and, because of jail, they were able to change their life around.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    At Amanda's home, we met Cleo Petricek, who last year co-founded Save Austin Now, a bipartisan political action committee that got Prop B on the ballot and is now suing the city to enforce it.

    She's a Democrat and former probation officer, and says low-income communities like this one face far greater impacts from allowing homeless people to set up camp.

    We spoke to her in a park where an encampment had cropped up. She says the homeless themselves shouldn't have to live like this.

  • Cleo Petricek:

    I felt like no one was being served by the inhumanity of the conditions that they're in. This is not California. This is Texas. We have high heat and we have frozen winters.

    We have had homeless individuals freeze to death. And we have also had homeless die from the heat.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    She believes Prop B is about getting homeless people the help they need, even if it means possible arrest.

  • Cleo Petricek:

    I'm a former probation officer. I do not believe we should be building more prisons or imprison people who have mental health and drug issues.

    They should be in mandatory help or drug treatment, absolutely. The problem is, if you don't have that component, the compulsory element of forcing them into that, who will receive that service?

  • Chris Harris:

    A lot of people continue to have misconceptions about what Prop B was and what it's going to do. But there's no money or help associated with it. It's purely to criminalize people for unavoidable acts associated with extreme poverty.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Chris Harris works on the Criminal Justice Project at Texas Appleseed, an Austin-based nonprofit that focuses on issues of social, economic and racial equity.

    In 2019, he pushed for decriminalization, citing a city auditor's report that said 18,000 citations were issued from 2014 to 2016 for activities related to homelessness; 90 percent of violators failed to show up in court, and, of those, 72 percent were issued warrants for arrest.

  • Chris Harris:

    While you have a warrant, you can't get an I.D. Guess what you can't get when you don't have an I.D.? Anything. You can't get a job. You can't get housing. Even some services are cut off from you. So it actually made the problem worse for a lot of folks.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    He also says allowing camping on the streets led to an outpouring of resources to address the problem.

  • Chris Harris:

    We understand now the full extent of the homelessness crisis that we face. And it's driven volunteers, donations, city investments, private investments into housing, into services in an unprecedented fashion.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Earlier this year, the city unveiled a plan to use $106 million in federal funds to dramatically increase rental assistance, build more long-term housing, and open new temporary housing shelters. But there is still more need than housing supply.

  • Marcie Collard:

    We're out of the heat. We have a roof over our head.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Adam Cartwright and Marcie Collard were each homeless for five years, most recently in downtown Austin.

  • Marcie Collard:

    We had so many people throw glass bottles from the cars at our tents and said: "You all white trash. You all need to get a job. You all need to get housing. You all don't need to be out on the street."

  • Adam Cartwright:

    For someone would yell out, "Go home," it's, like, this is technically our home.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Then, earlier this month, their camp was cleared and they were offered a room in this converted hotel, as well as case managers to help them find permanent housing and deal with any other issues, like mental health or addiction.

    Dianna Grey, the city homeless strategist, says around 90 percent of those who've been offered housing under the city's new efforts have accepted it. But there simply isn't enough for everyone who needs it.

  • Freddie Williams:

    This is the entrance.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Right here?

  • Freddie Williams:

    Yes.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Without an offer of housing, Freddie Williams is now planning to camp in these poison-oak-infested woods to avoid a run-in with police.

  • Freddie Williams:

    The people that have voted to put this Proposition B into place, they were just tired of seeing us. That's all that mattered to — they didn't care about us being homeless, where we was at or anything. They just didn't want to see us.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Are there are a lot of people like you that are going to be trying to hide in the woods?

  • Freddie Williams:

    The majority of people that was under the bridge over there where I was at, they're trying to find — they're scattering right now.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Hiding out of sight and, advocates for the homeless worry, out of mind.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy in Austin, Texas.

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