Texas governor opens homeless campsite amid feud with Austin

  • In this Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019 file photo, from left, Terry Flakes, Kim Smith, and Tracy Botlinger have lunch at their camp in south Austin, Texas. Texas’ Republican governor is creating a homeless campsite on state land amid an escalating battle with liberal leaders in the state capital over people living on the streets. National advocates for the homeless said Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019 they couldn’t recall another state making such a move, which follows Gov. Greg Abbott’s months-long feud with Austin on Twitter. The encampment site covers 5 acres on the outskirts of downtown. (James Gregg/Austin American-Statesman via AP, File)

AUSTIN, Texas — Texas’ Republican governor said Thursday he is creating a homeless campsite on state land in the capital of Austin, escalating a battle with the city’s liberal leaders over people living on the streets.

Greg Abbott’s announcement was met with a mix of muted welcoming and accusations of political posturing from Democrats who run the state capital around the Texas Governor’s Mansion, where Abbott has spent months lashing out at the city’s homelessness problem on Twitter.

The plans to convert 5 acres of state land on the outskirts of downtown into a campsite also drew the attention of national advocates for homeless, who couldn’t recall another state ever making such a move.

“Outside of the national disaster context, I’m not aware of any state setting up an encampment like this,” said Eric Tars, legal director for the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty in Washington.

Like other fast-growing cities in the U.S., Austin has struggled with homelessness as housing costs skyrocket. On Wednesday, Las Vegas made sleeping on downtown streets illegal over protests about a “war on the poor.”

President Donald Trump began a trip to California in September saying he would do something about homelessness but offered no specifics. He said cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco can’t “destroy themselves by allowing what’s happening.”

But in Texas, Abbott has turned his attacks on his own backyard. The homeless in Austin grew more visible after Mayor Steve Adler and city leaders decriminalized camping in public places, which Abbott slammed as reckless and a threat to public safety downtown.

He shared videos on Twitter that he said captured the dangers of the city’s new policy, some of which were old and criticized as misleading. One video Abbott tweeted featured a man whose attorney later said wasn’t homeless and suffered from mental illness.

Abbott spokesman John Wittman said the campsite in on the city’s east side will have portable restrooms and hand-washing stations. He said it will also provide access to homeless case workers and healthcare providers until a new permanent sheltering opens.

City business leaders said earlier Thursday they would raise $14 million for a news shelter that could sleep up to 300 people.

“Our goal is to make Austin safer while also providing better alternatives to the homeless,” Abbott tweeted Monday, when he directed crews to begin clearing out homeless encampments under Austin bridges and overpasses.

Austin’s homeless population is more than 2,200, a number that has ticked up slightly over the past two years. Austin Mayor Steve Adler said the state’s temporary camping area “can be constructive” but emphasized that the focus would remain permanent housing.

State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, a Democrat whose Austin district includes the new homeless campsite, said he welcomed the state’s help but saw no long-term solution.

“I know politics when I see it, and that’s what it seems like to me,” Rodriguez said. “There’s no love lost between the governor and the city of Austin.”


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