Texas Gov. Greg Abbott posted a video last week of a man repeatedly throwing metal poles at a stopped car in downtown Austin. Abbott, a Republican, wasted no time attacking Mayor Steve Adler, a Democrat, and his city's approach to homelessness, tweeting: "Austin's policy of lawlessness has allowed vicious acts like this."
There were a couple of notable problems here. One is that the incident initially occurred in February 2018, well before Austin implemented more permissive, less punitive policies on homelessness. After this was pointed out to Abbott (and after the account that had initially posted the video tweeted a clarification of the timeline, to its credit), Abbott failed to correct it, choosing instead to dig his heels in:
Thanks for making my point.
That video was before you altered the homeless policy that made public safety WORSE.
You fool no one. Everyone knows the dangers downtown.
Attacks have INCREASED since that video.
— Greg Abbott (@GregAbbott_TX) October 26, 2019
Then there's the other problem. Texas Monthly spoke to Krista Chacona, the lawyer who had represented the pole-throwing man in court, and confirmed that the man was not—and had never been—homeless. Rather, he has "developmental and intellectual disabilities."
"He was never able to articulate to me what was going through his mind that day," Chacona noted to Texas Monthly, who added that the man was "arrested for felony criminal mischief" and "ruled incapable of standing trial." (The case is ongoing.)
Abbott was wrong to suggest this person was homeless. He was also wrong to act as if Austin's policies on homelessness had enabled violence: Damaging someone else's property is already illegal in Austin, whether you're homeless or not. But most of all, he was wrong—and seemingly serving a blindly partisan agenda—to refuse to correct the record after he himself spread misinformation. Ironically, just a day after the above tweet, he was tweeting his dismay at The Washington Post's inability to issue a proper correction.
The homelessness policy Abbott was attacking was passed in late June, when the city revoked ordinances that banned camping, sitting, and lying down in public areas. Now it's actual "obstruction" that's banned, not merely sitting or sleeping in the "pedestrian right-of-way." So homeless encampments under bridges and on sidewalks are permitted, though camping in public parks remains illegal. The city also legalized panhandling, provided it's not aggressive. And it changed a statute to specify that a homeless person must be "given a reasonable opportunity by a law enforcement officer to correct the violating conduct." (On October 17, the city council decided that camping on sidewalks should be re-prohibited but sitting or lying down would be OK.)
The narrowing of prohibited activity is intended to lead to fewer negative encounters between homeless people and police and, more broadly, to the decriminalization of homelessness. Piling up tickets and fines—or worse, jail time—when you already cannot pay for food or housing is wholly counterproductive to getting homeless people back on their feet.
Municipal and state officials are at odds about how to curb the city's homelessness problem. Despite—or perhaps because of—the city's less harsh approach, the Texas Department of Transportation will start clearing the tents, clothing, and personal effects of the homeless people who have been living under Austin's highway underpasses. The crackdown is scheduled to start this coming Monday.