(November 7, 2019, Washington, D.C.) – On Monday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott ignored the voices of countless Austin residents when he ordered the displacement of homeless people living under Texas bridges in the Austin area—with no plan for where they would go. In apparent response to these actions, the Austin Chamber of Commerce announced plans to spend millions on a “large tent structure,” which the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty is concerned will not serve many of Austin’s homeless residents.
Earlier today, the Austin Chamber of Commerce announced plans to spend millions on a “mega-tent” that is intended to temporarily warehouse approximately 300 people without housing. However, this shelter will not be available until the first quarter of 2020 and people have already been displaced—left with nowhere to go and left without even the rudimentary shelter of their own tents as winter approaches.
Moreover, a mega-shelter environment is not an appropriate setting for some, such as people with disabilities who cannot be accommodated there. Indeed, the shelter model announced in Austin is seemingly based on the model operating in San Diego, a city which is currently the defendant in a federal lawsuit filed by the Law Center, Disability Rights California, Disability Rights Advocates, and other counsel. In our suit, we argue that San Diego’s mega-shelters are functionally inaccessible to homeless people with disabilities—a concern that is echoed in Austin’s plans.
In addition, this facility will not provide enough capacity for all unsheltered homeless persons in Austin, and the Law Center fears that its existence will be used to justify unfettered enforcement of Austin’s anti-camping ordinance. Enforcement of Austin’s anti-camping ordinance in the past has had a racially-disparate impact on Austin’s African-American homeless population, and there must be policies in place to ensure these trends do not continue.
“Criminalizing homelessness does nothing to end it; it simply makes life even more miserable for people who are already suffering and makes it harder for them to leave the streets, harming them and the entire community,” said Maria Foscarinis, Executive Director of the Law Center. “By displacing unhoused people and communities with nowhere stable to go now, the State of Texas is only making its crisis of homelessness worse. Future plans to establish a mega-shelter that will only be temporarily accessible to some of Austin’s homeless population do not change that reality.”
The Law Center commends Austin for thoughtfully considering and providing historic funding for an action plan to end homelessness with housing—the least expensive and most effective solution to homelessness. While the Law Center welcomes the Chamber’s newfound interest in providing resources toward solutions, it would do much better to support the methods proposed in the action plan rather than coming up with its own dramatic gesture of a mega-tent shelter based on discredited approaches.
We hope that Gov. Abbott will heed the voices of his constituents in Austin and stop taking a punitive, harmful approach to homelessness that will waste taxpayer dollars and worsen the state’s homeless crisis. We call on the Governor and the Chamber to instead adopt best practices for ending encampments in Austin and across the state, detailed in our Tent City, USA report, as well as supporting the best practices adopted in Austin’s action plan.
We intend to closely monitor the actions of Governor Abbott and the implementation of the plan announced by the Austin Chamber of Commerce. Housing, not handcuffs, is the way to end homelessness—and remedies, not punishments, is the way to get there.
The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (the Law Center) is the only national organization dedicated solely to using the power of the law to prevent and end homelessness. With the support of a large network of pro bono lawyers, we address the immediate and long-term needs of people who are homeless or at risk through outreach and training, advocacy, impact litigation, and public education.