How Liberals Lost the Fight Over Homelessness in One of America's Most Progressive Cities

Austin's Proposition B serves as a cautionary tale.

Many years ago, I spent half a year volunteering at a local nonprofit that served as both a homeless shelter and food bank for indigent people outside of Atlanta.

Although I hold degrees from a couple of universities (a B.A. from the University of Georgia and a Masters from Syracuse University), in many ways this experience was among the most educational of my life.

It’s one thing to read about economics in a textbook; it’s an entirely different thing to meet someone who was earning high five figures recently but who, through a stroke of bad luck, now has to rely on charity to survive.

If you think homelessness can’t happen to you, you should meet some of my former clients. Many Americans will throughout their lives experience what is called transitional homelessness, which occurs after a catastrophic event or major downturn in their life. I’d say most of my clients were in this category — they had hit a rough patch and needed immediate support, which we provided with housing, food, clothing, and job placement. Although estimates about the size and composition of the unsheltered population in the United States vary, most people who are without housing on any particular day fall into this category.

The tougher category of homelessness is chronic homelessness, which involves people who are dealing with addiction, mental illness, or some other form of disability. These individuals tend to be homeless for a year or longer. Unlike people in the previous category, they usually need more than just a job and temporary housing — they need much more sustained social and economic supports in order to get on their feet.

Cities have tackled both types of homelessness with a range of approaches. Some of these are crude. When Atlanta was hosting the Olympics in 1996, it dealt with its chronic homeless by buying them one-way bus tickets to anyway in the country. They even had to sign a statement saying that they wouldn’t return.

Other cities deployed a more progressive approach. Salt Lake City deployed a “housing first” model — where the city prioritizes housing unhoused folks before giving them services — that reduced chronic homelessness by more than 90 percent (although the city is still far from perfect in this regard).

That brings us to the case of Austin, Texas, which decided to test the limits of a progressive electorate.

In 2019 the city passed an ordinance that effectively decriminalized “the act of sitting, laying, or camping in public spaces.”

Advocates for this change argued that the ban on public camping was making things more difficult for the homeless because citations were creating arrest records that make it harder to get housing and jobs.

Mayor Steven Adler, a proponent of decriminalization, used an op-ed to argue that criminalization was basically a game of whack-a-mole that was failing to tackle the root cause of the problem:

Unfortunately, a lot of what we’ve done, empowered by ordinances, has been merely to move people around — from here to there and back again. A business owner calls the police. The police tell the person to move along. The immediate concern is handled as the person and the challenge shift out of view — but only for the moment. […]

I refuse to play any longer. We can actually address both our concern for people and our concern for our public spaces. There is one simple answer. Want to help people? House them. Want to stop people sleeping in public spaces? House them.

That’s an argument that was met with receptive ears in Austin, which is probably Texas’s most progressive city (and one of America’s most liberal, too). Around 72 percent of Austin’s Travis County voted for Joe Biden in the last election.

Yet on Saturday, Austin’s voters revolted against this change. The vote really wasn’t even close — 58 percent of voters supported Proposition B, which repealed the 2019 decision.

Why did such a liberal electorate decide to take the same position as the Republican Governor Greg Abbott and oppose Adler, the Travis County Democratic Party, and other local liberal institutions who opposed Prop B?

“Probably the most conservative I’ve ever voted”

One of the most reliably liberal places on the Internet is Reddit. You can post a photo of Joe Biden doing literally anything and get thousands of upvotes (that’s basically Reddit’s version of giving a post a “like”).

The first time I knew Prop B stood a real chance of passing was when I was browsing Reddit pages related to Austin and found many nominally left-leaning posters admitting that they found themselves aligned with the more right-leaning stance on this issue. Here’s a small sample of what I found from before and after the vote:

  • Probably the most conservative I’ve ever voted but I had to for my own safety. I’ve lived in an apartment off Ben white overpass for 3 years. Ever since the camping ban was lifted crime has gone way up in my neighborhood. I can’t use my laundry room because I’ve had clothes stolen several times, several times I’ve had the same homeless woman throw chunks of ice at my car and others while driving under the overpass with no cops around to stop her, these may sound minor but the real kicker was went I found out my neighbor a few doors down had his door kicked in by a homeless dude when he was home. He screamed ‘I’ve got a gun!’ And the dude ran off but they had to replace his door and doorframe, I’m a single woman and live alone, I’m locked in my lease and I’m not putting up with this shit anymore. The city needs to make a real plan, I’ll pay tax dollars to feed and house them but letting them sit out just doesn’t work.”

  • I’m all blue but after having mine and my small niece + dog’s life threatened multiple times by people experimenting with homelessness, I gotta vote for it. It’s been the same old shit for years now ‘we need a plan.’ That’s fine, make a plan, but in the meantime I want the odds of somebody accosting me in the middle of an evening stroll reduced and prop b will do that as ‘cruel’ as it may be.”

  • “What I would like to know is if our homeless situation has inherently really changed or if it has just become more visible. I’ve visited camps and I’ve seen more drug addiction than anything else. That and a ridiculous collection of trash. Has lifting the camping ban helped anyone? I don’t think so. I’m leaning towards voting yes, which is hard for me being the soy boy libtard cuck lefty commie piece of shit that I am, but damn if don’t want to see so much fucking trash in our creeks anymore. This of course is a stop gap measure, that as another Redditor pointed out just kicks the can down the road. We need some real fucking solutions here and so far I haven’t heard any from our leaders. But at least people won’t be declawing their cats anymore and big tech companies still get massive tax incentives to drive up our cost of living!”

A few major themes run through these posts. It’s obvious that some Austinites feel unsafe, while others pointed to environmental and public health issues. Many liberals felt the need to explain that they are not in any way conservative before grudgingly coming to the conclusion that something needed to change (although support for the proposition was lighter in youth-heavy downtown, where many of the encampments are concentrated).

You’ll find similar sentiments in this Vice News piece that interviewed Austinites about the homelessness crisis:

Mike Siegel, a local progressive activist who unsuccessfully ran for Congress in the 10th Congressional District last year, volunteered alongside Homes Not Handcuffs, the coalition that opposed Prop B.

He suggested to me that the proposition’s backers were smart to pick the May date to make their stand. “This is a very strategic wedge issue pushed by the Travis County Republican Party. It was placed on the perfect ballot. To the extent there’s a right wing in Austin, and obviously there is, a so-called May off-year election is the sweet spot for them, right?” he said. “Because it’s the lowest possible turnout election. And it’s the election that skews wealthy, white, and conservative.”

Councilman Greg Casar, who helped pass the 2019 ordinance and campaigned against Prop B, sounded resigned in a statement his office gave me about Saturday’s vote.

“I do not believe Austin is as divided as this election makes it seem. The overwhelming majority of Austinites share a common goal, no matter how folks voted on Prop B,” he said. “We all want to get people out of tents and into homes. Our community must come together after this election and house 3,000 more people, because we can only solve homelessness with homes, not handcuffs."

“A winning coalition for us”

While organic backlash appeared to play a big role in the passage of Prop B, there was also a well-funded and well-organized campaign to repeal 2019’s ordinance.

This took the form of Save Austin Now, disclosed more than $819,000 in contributions over the last disclosure period, which includes March and April, using this money for a sophisticated campaign that included social media ads and mass text messaging. They raised $1.75 million dollars, which helped them put up 29 billboards.

Homes Not Handcuffs, raised around $150,000 in contributions over the same period. That sizable spending gap likely hurt the anti-Prop B campaigners. Despite institutional support from the local Democratic Party and a range of left-leaning activist organizations, opponents of the proposition were unable to convince significant spenders to throw money behind their cause.

Save Austin Now, on the other hand, appeared to have no problem recruiting donors, particularly from industries who have a financial incentive to reduce public camping. Disclosures show, for example, that McWhinney Real Estate cut a $10,000 check in the home stretch; the Colorado-based developer has been active in constructing property in downtown Austin, where the public encampments are often the most visible.

One of Save Austin Now’s co-founders is Matt Mackowiak, the CEO of the consulting firm Potomac Strategies and chairman of the Travis County GOP.

If you had to design a political operative engineered to repel liberal voters, it would probably be Mackowiak, who is a staple of Texas Republican politics. Indeed, Anti-Prop B activists were quick to brand Save Austin Now as a GOP initiative.

Yet it’s hard to deny that Mackowiak and Save Austin Now were wildly successful in mobilizing a bipartisan coalition of voters.

It all started in the summer of 2019, shortly after the city council passed the new ordinance. About a week after the city council acted, Mackiowak started a Change.org petition demanding that the ordinance be rescinded. The petition caught fire, soon gathering tens of thousands of signatures.

“I felt kind of a responsibility to that community to number one keep them updated on the consequences of the policy but to number two to advocate on their behalf for this thing we all say we’re for, which is reinstating the ban,” Mackiowak told me.

Public backlash as well as pressure from Abbott soon led the city council to make some modest modification to the law, including a ban on camping on sidewalks. But Mackiowak was unsatisfied with the council’s refusal to consider any additional changes.

“I was shocked by that. On what planet do elected officials say they’ll never consider changes from an existing policy?” he said. “They left us no choice to but to pursue a petition approach.”

Mackiowak teamed up with a local Democratic activist, Cleo Petricek, to form Save Austin Now and work to collect petitions to get on the May ballot. The organization’s messaging stressed bipartisanship, and it appears that it paid off.

Save Austin Now used robocalls and text messages to survey early voters in the days leading up to the election, which helped them figure out the partisan composition of their coalition, based on past primary history. “40 percent of Democrats voting for it, 88 percent of independents, and 92 percent of Republicans voting for it, and that’s a winning coalition in our city,” he told me.

Although Siegel emphasized that structural factors like the off-year nature of the election gave Save Austin Now a boost, he also suggested that advocates for decriminalization should’ve offered an alternative to Prop B.

“I think, in hindsight, if we could’ve seen this coming, that this anti-homeless measure was going to become a wedge issue that builds Republican power in Austin, I think that what we could’ve done is put more urgency into having an affirmative measure on the ballot,” he said. “So that it wasn’t just no on this and trust us to do something in the months and years ahead. But it was no on B, because that’s going to waste money on cops and jails and not real solutions, but yes on J which is gonna say allocate CARES Act funding to do X, Y, Z that’s real solutions. I think the lack of an affirmative policy demand I think really hurt the coalition.”

A cautionary tale

Saturday’s vote dashed the hopes of many reformers in the city of Austin, who had hoped that decriminalization marked the beginning of a new era where the homeless wouldn’t face police enforcement simply for lacking a roof over their heads.

I asked Mackiowak if Save Austin Now plans to maintain a presence in city politics. He told me that they want to work on additional “standard of living issues,” as well as keep an eye on what the city does on homelessness going forward. He is critical of Austin’s approach of buying hotels to house the homeless, seeing it as a failed model; he’d prefer the city look at approaches like Haven for Hope in San Antonio or tiny houses.

While he acknowledged that some Prop B voters were Democrats, Siegel views the conservatives who pushed the ballot referendum with deep suspicion. “I don’t think, in good faith, that they actually care about this issue,” he said. “If you look at Matt Mackiowak, the Travis GOP chair’s statement on election night, he was like celebrating defeating the Mayor and our most progressive council member, Greg Casar. He wasn’t even talking about homelessness.”

Regardless of Mackiowak’s motivations, it’s clear that liberals have lost control of the political narrative in a city that has historically been friendly to their faction.

Austin’s leaders failed to win over a skeptical city and move quickly enough to tackle homelessness. They also failed to build the political institutions necessary to defend the new rules, as Save Austin Now’s campaign spending easily dwarfed what Homes Not Handcuffs was able to raise.

In the two years since Adler wrote the op-ed quoted above, homelessness in Austin did not significantly go down, and the chronic homeless population is now more visible than ever. You could argue that Adler and the city council essentially set off a countdown when they decriminalized public camping. They had a certain amount of time to marshal the resources for housing and convince a substantial portion of the homeless population to utilize it. They didn’t make significant progress on the issue, and it appears that the public’s patience for the ever-growing encampments ran out.

Prop B serves as a cautionary tale to progressives, who have been using America’s cities as a petri dish to experiment with cutting-edge economics and governance reforms. Back in 2019, Mayor Adler and Austin’s Democratic-dominated city council no doubt thought that they were embarking on a bold new approach to homelessness. But even the boldest ambitions can crumble under political attack, and as the growing sea of homeless encampments that greet Austin’s residents can attest, ambition means little unless it can change what’s happening in reality.