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City Leaders In Austin Clash With Texas Governor Over Homeless Issue


City leaders in Austin, Texas, are clashing with the state's governor over what to do about the homeless. Last month, Governor Greg Abbott threatened the city after it allowed increased camping in public. Andrew Weber from member station KUT in Austin has more.

ANDREW WEBER, BYLINE: Austin, like many cities, is struggling to find housing for people sleeping outdoors. But since July, when the city relaxed its camping laws, the controversy has focused more on the politics rather than the policy of letting people sleep in public or under bridges. Seven months ago, Liz Willette and James Box lived under one of those bridges. They struggled with substance abuse and mental health issues. James was having a crisis.

JAMES BOX: I was three days off of killing myself when I met Liz, when she walked into my life.

WEBER: They eventually connected to local aid groups and found stable housing. That's why, on a freezing night in Central Texas, they came to a packed shelter at Oak Hill United Methodist Church to give back. They brought six bags of clothes to donate to the same pop-up shelter that housed them last winter.

LIZ WILLETTE: I've lost all my belongings probably five times over, and we had a lot of extra stuff that we don't really need. And it's the very, very least I can do.

WEBER: Both Willette and Box say the city's decision to decriminalize camping allowed the homeless to stop living in the woods and consider getting help. But this fall, Governor Abbott argued that Austin's laws created a public health and safety crisis.


GREG ABBOTT: Feces and used needles are accumulating at alarming rates. Let me tell you, if Austin does not fix its homeless crisis by November the 1, I will unleash the full authority of every state agency.

WEBER: Austin officials deny the governor's claims and say they haven't seen increases in crime or defecating in public. Austin City Council member Greg Casar argues that instead of the rhetoric, the state should offer solutions like raising the minimum wage or offering assistance for housing.

GREG CASAR: This isn't about passing the blame. It's about saying, let's all band together and address this issue and not spread misinformation.

WEBER: In response to the governor's threat, the city reinstated some bans on camping and resting in public. But that didn't appease the governor, who ordered state police and transportation officials to clear out underpasses and move homeless people to a repurposed parking lot out by the city's airport. Eric Tars is with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. He says he's not surprised that a Republican governor is following this strategy.

ERIC TARS: I mean, it's particularly ironic for a party which usually prides itself on local control that's in this area. They seem to be wanting to overstep that and take away control.

WEBER: Meanwhile, city programs have helped house at least 500 people since the whole dustup started. As for Liz Willette and James Box, they hope for more compassion as local and state officials try to agree on a way to address homelessness. Willette says anyone can become homeless.

WILLETTE: I am more than happy to be a person who readily admits that I was homeless because, yes, I might look like your neighbor, but I was homeless.

WEBER: As James Box gets ready to leave the shelter, he sees an old friend from when he lived under that bridge. Pulling out a piece of paper, he sketches out directions to their studio apartment just in case she needs a place to stay. For NPR News, I'm Andrew Weber in Austin.


Andrew Weber