The Austin of 2018 was marked by cranes blocking out the sun as the tallest residential building west of the Mississippi River, The Independent, was erected over the sweltering streets. The glimmering building offered luxurious spaces to live and prices to match the million-dollar views.
Below that there was an issue, but it was only bubbling on the surface. When the City Council voted to legalize camping, lying and sitting in public spaces, it boiled over. The Austin of 2019 was instead marked by tents and shopping carts sitting under overpasses and on sidewalks.
The city known for its university, politics, growth and music had its reputation changed almost overnight.
Gov. Greg Abbott announced the city had until November to address its homeless issue, calling it a public health concern, before the state stepped in.
Between all of this were people, struggling with financial difficulties, drug problems or mental health issues, all of whom were essentially being identified as a nuisance that needed to be removed.
The Texas Department of Transportation cleared most of those makeshift camps this week, but between the political voices, officials missed the people caught up in the mess. In an effort to preserve the city’s beauty and property values, people were pushed from the city.
Abbott announced Thursday a property outside of the downtown area near the airport would be set aside as a temporary residence for the displaced homeless until a more permanent solution could be devised, according to The Texas Tribune.
The homeless residents didn’t magically appear in June after the city’s decision. The problem has always been there, the difference being that now residents, the city and state must confront the realities of Austin’s homeless problem. What was once a man on a street with a cardboard sign asking for some spare change was replaced with unsightly camps.
The governor’s temporary solution, which will provide restrooms, health care, donated food, caseworkers and 24-hour security, according to The Texas Tribune, is a bandage on the issue.
This is a difficult task, though. Balancing the interests of people who are made uncomfortable by facing the issue of homelessness at every stoplight with the compassion of helping people who are down on their luck is not easy. It can be easy to minimize both viewpoints into one- or two-sentence strawmen, but homelessness is an issue with no clear solution.
The governor identified the camps as a problem, but what the city and state have here is an opportunity, even if it might not first appear that way.
Cities across the nation have failed to help care for their homeless populations, either pushing the problem out by force, as was done in New York, or by accepting it as a reality of living in the city, as many West Coast cities did.
The governor and Austin Mayor Steve Adler should carefully consider their next steps. They have an opportunity to, rather than follow the examples of other cities’ approaches, lead a new way to lifting people out of homelessness.
Providing living spaces can remove some blight, but addressing the underlying mental issues many people in homeless communities face could provide a bold example for others around the country. That might mean government investment in mental health services, or taking a different approach to addressing drug addiction aside from telling residents “drugs are bad.” It also might mean finding a way to provide affordable housing in a city where rent prices continue to climb.
This is all easier said than done, but Abbott has a chance here to show the rest of the country how a conservative state government and liberal city leadership can work together to fix what led to these people seeking shelter under highways.
So far, putting the homeless on a 5-acre space near the historically low-income Montopolis neighborhood, according to The Texas Tribune, isn’t a good start.
Perhaps the state and city can find a balance between economic prosperity and compassion for those less fortunate.