The state capitol is in the national spotlight again, only this time it’s not for something that did or didn’t happen during a legislative session.
After Austin’s mayor and the city council rescinded a ban on homeless encampments in June, an uproar ensued over a potential public health crisis.
Gov. Greg Abbott waded into the controversy last week, saying he would “unleash the full authority of every state agency to protect the health and safety of all Texans” if the council does not fix the problem by Nov. 1.
We have two questions. Why wait? Why just Austin? And don’t the homeless also deserve to have state agencies working to protect their health and safety, too?
Since Austin rescinded its ban on homeless encampments, they’ve sprung up all over the city — primarily under highway overpasses — allowing individuals to sleep in public areas next to residential neighborhoods, elementary schools, businesses and elsewhere.
State agencies that could be tasked with the clean-up work include the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state Health and Human Services Commission and the Texas Department of Transportation.
But homelessness isn’t just a city or a state problem, it’s a national problem. As of 2018, there were around 553,000 homeless people in the United States on any given night, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Annual Homeless Assessment Report. That represents about 0.17% of the population, the report states.
But fixing the homeless problem means more than adopting criminal penalties for sleeping, camping, eating, sitting or asking for money or resources in public spaces. Many of these measures are designed to move the homeless out of sight and, ultimately, out of a city.
Lufkin has adopted several similar ordinances.
Homelessness is defined as the condition of people lacking “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” While there are multiple causes of homelessness, one thing is clear: Homelessness and poverty are inextricably linked. It’s also a problematic equal opportunity issue for many segments of the population — regardless of race — including families, children, domestic violence victims, ex-convicts, veterans and senior citizens.
President Ronald Reagan signed the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act into law in 1987. To date, it remains the only piece of federal legislation that allocates funding to the direct service of homeless people.
The issue is going to require additional legislation and a redoubling of efforts from nonprofit organizations. It’s also going to require increased access to health care services, supportive housing and affordable housing.
Only then can we say that homelessness has really been fixed.