The Austin, Texas, elected government passed a law last month eliminating the city’s prohibition on people sitting, lying, or camping in public. Furious Republican officials are now seeking to overturn this decision and have enlisted the opinions of a lot of people who don’t live in Austin.
Like many cities, Austin has a significant and growing population of people without consistent and stable housing. According to a report earlier this year, more than 2,000 people in the state capital experience homelessness.
The city council voted in June to lift the ban on sitting and camping, except for those actually blocking pathways. Advocates for the homeless oppose laws like the one Austin eliminated as ineffective and unconstitutional, saying they actually make it harder to address the problem.
But Travis County Republican Chairman Matt Mackowiak was not happy. “In all the time I’ve lived in Austin, I’ve never seen an issue where there is more unanimous opposition, more unanimous agreement, than there is on this issue,” he told told KVUE this week. “I think the city council and the mayor have badly misjudged how the policy would work and how people would understand it and perhaps even come to agree with it.”
On Thursday he launched a Change.org petition demanding that the ban be immediately rescinded. First-term Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX), whose congressional district includes part of the city, tweeted out the link with the words, “Sign this, Austin.”
Over the past two days, Roy and Mackowiak have repeatedly highlighted the growing number of signatures on the non-binding online petition.
Amazing: 5,000+ signatures in 36 hours.
Sign and share: https://t.co/2Wds53aQIa
Rescind the homeless camping ordinance in Austin
— Matt Mackowiak (@MattMackowiak) July 19, 2019
By Friday afternoon, the total number of signatures had exceeded 6,000 people. But a ThinkProgress review of the signers found that a huge percentage of them are not actually Austin residents.
One signer, whose profile indicates a Conroe, Texas, address — a Houston suburb — explained that they signed because “once in a blue moon I visit Austin.” Another signer, listed in Spicewood, Texas, wrote “It is ludacris [sic]! There should be mental hospitals for many of these people.” A third, listed as being from more than an hour away in San Antonio, wrote, “It is a health hazard as well as an eyesore for tourists. Please rescind this ordinance. Keep Texas beautiful.”
Not all of the signers are even from Texas. People listed as living in Las Vegas, Nevada; Hedgesville, West Virginia; and La Vergne, Tennessee, all weighed in to oppose Austin’s public policy. And though it is unclear why they felt strongly about this issue, their signatures too were counted in the running totals that Mackowiak and Roy boasted about.
In an email, Mackowiak defended the petition.
“We are not targeting anyone outside of Austin, and change.org does not allow for geolimited signups,” he wrote. “This is not a petition for the ballot, it is a demonstration of public opposition to this disastrous policy, which has clearly failed in Los Angeles.”
After urging mental health, drug, and alcohol screening for Austin’s homeless population, he wrote that all other homeless people need to “be on a path to work and self sufficiency.” Mackowiak added that the city “needs adequate shelters for our homeless population, which is at least 2,500 and may be as high as 10,000 individuals.”
While the non-Austinites signing a petition may not sway the local government, one prominent Austin resident’s opposition could be the biggest threat. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) tweeted late last month that he would push for the state legislature to override local democracy to eliminate the change.