Multiple homeless encampment fires renew debate over camping ban

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Multiple homeless encampment fires renew debate over camping ban

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin Mayor Steve Adler said Friday that reinstating a ban on camping is no solution to the city’s homeless problem and would potentially turn the multiple fires we saw in the past 24 hours into deadly incidents.

“If these same fires happen in the woods… to those people we may have forced back there as some are asking… people may well die,” Adler said. “Last night’s fires were horrible and we’re fortunate that no one died, but it should renew and redouble our efforts to get people out of tents everywhere and get them into homes.”

Two big fires flared up, one late Thursday night and another early Friday morning. Both were at homeless encampments. The one Thursday night engulfed the historic downtown Austin Buford Tower[1]. The one Friday morning destroyed four “units” at the state-sponsored homeless camp in southeast Austin[2]. Crews put out another one on Tuesday under the Ben White underpass.

Austin fire division chief Thayer Smith said his crews have been “busier than normal,” responding to several calls a day over the past few weeks of either potential or actual homeless encampment fires.

The fires have renewed the conversation about the homeless camping ban, which Austinites will have a chance to vote on during the May election.

“Taxpayer’s money is being used for AFD to address multiple calls per day related to the homeless. Nice,” Save Austin Now tweeted, in response to what a battalion chief told KXAN Friday morning.[3]

Mackenzie Kelly, city council member for district 6, says the city isn’t working fast enough on housing and leaving people on the streets in the meantime is a safety issue.

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“It’s problematic because it enables people experiencing homelessness to come here, set up camp and not receive services that will help lift them out of their situation,” she says.

All leaders agree that more needs to be done to solve homelessness.

“We also have to do better than we’re doing right now with respect to the encampments that people see. We can and we will and the Council is taking action, and the community is coming forward with a new way to approach this challenge.”

“Where do you want them to go is the question I ask?” said Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison. “How do we decide which communities are appropriate to shelter people?”

But Kelly says council isn’t working efficiently and needs to find fiscally responsible solutions.

“I looked into it and the $ 9.5 million that we allocated to possibly use to buy the… permanent supportive housing in district 6, we could send to Community First village and they could house 300 people instead of just 80,” she says, referring to the council’s February to purchase a Williamson County hotel.[5]

The contentious plans call for the Candlewood Suites on Pecan Park Boulevard to provide 80 housing units for people experiencing homelessness.

State leaders are also weighing in on the measure. The latest comes from Governor Greg Abbott, who tweeted Friday afternoon, “Austin residents can end fires like this by voting yes for Prop B.”

Senator John Cornyn tweeted a similar message.

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“We have to get people out of tents everywhere. We need to actually get them housed and not just hide them,” Adler said.

“I think we need to stop with the hypocrisy. I think we need to stop with the prejudice of people caught up in poverty or mental illness,” Harper-Madison added. “Proposition B won’t house anyone. People living in tents in the capital city. That problem won’t be solved by tickets and jail.”

Wes Wilson


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