Austin’s camping ban flip-flop makes chaos for the homeless
The city is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on the problem
Mark Hilbelink is the pastor of Sunrise Community Church in Austin, Texas. Homeless people come to his church for food, showers, and friendship, as well as for help getting their IDs and getting approved for city housing.
In 2019, the Austin City Council voted to allow camping on public land, revoking the previous ban against it. After that, Hilbelink watched a massive homeless encampment grow under a highway overpass near the church. “It just became completely overwhelmed with people. Trash everywhere. It was an eyesore to everybody. It was an eyesore to me, and I know most of those people,” he said. “It was dangerous. … They were literally on an island between cars going back and forth, and a lot of them struggle with intoxication and mental health.”
Unlike other homeless advocates in the city, Hilbelink opposed revoking the ban completely. He believes that some areas, like that overpass, should be off-limits, while other public land is appropriate for tents. He called the ban a “black-and-white solution to a gray problem.” Hilbelink also said he suspected revoking it would create a strong public backlash. He was right: In May, voters reinstated the ban by ballot initiative, forcing the city to change its strategy.
This spring, Austin’s homeless strategy officer announced a $515 million plan to house 3,000 homeless people over the next three years. In September, the county budgeted more than $100 million of federal pandemic relief funds toward the goal. Despite past ambitious plans and funding, community resistance and administrative hurdles have slowed the city’s progress in fighting homelessness. Meanwhile, nonprofits and churches in Austin continue to provide personal help with little recognition or public support.
Since 2017, the number of newly homeless people in Austin has increased each year, according to city data. The homeless population has grown with the city, and lifting the camping ban exposed the extent of the problem. The city has taken a harm-reduction approach to helping the homeless that involves lifting the ban, distributing clean needles to drug users, and building a sobering center where publicly intoxicated individuals could go instead of jail.
In September, the city auditor released a report about Austin’s spending on homelessness. The audit reviewed $179 million in spending for various efforts, involving about 101 contracts with organizations and vendors. For the most part, the report said, vendors were spending the money in line with the city’s goals. But multiple city departments initiated contracts, and no centralized organization was tracking them all. “There is no complete inventory of agreements and associated spending for the city’s homelessness assistance efforts, and we could not determine the number of these agreements due to limitations with available data,” the report said.
Much of the spending recently has gone to securing more housing and shelter. The City Council used pandemic funds to buy several hotels to become “bridge shelters”—transitional shelters where people could stay before moving to permanent housing. In some cases, neighbors with safety concerns held protests and opposed the shelters in public meetings.
When COVID-19 first struck, nonprofits and government agencies began operating remotely, leaving gaps in on-the-ground outreach to homeless people. Mark Hilbelink said Sunrise Community Church and other faith-based groups filled the gap. As housing became available, Sunrise workers would call and email the next person on the waiting list.
“If we couldn’t get ahold of them by phone, couldn’t get ahold of them by email, we’d just go find them,” said Hilbelink. The reinstated camping ban is making that work harder. Now instead of camping in one place, people constantly move their tents to avoid receiving tickets. “Right now we’re putting around a dozen people a week on … a list of people that case managers are looking for that can’t be found,” Hilbelink said.
In the past, the pastor said, the city has hesitated to include churches in its strategy to fight homelessness, but during the pandemic they have become essential. Yet the city does not fund these smaller, faith-based groups like it does the agencies that previously handled outreach. That leaves Sunrise leaders wondering if they should be raising their own funds for the work.
“Hopefully in the long run there’s a more equitable distribution of resources around that, but I’m not holding my breath,” Hilbelink said.
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