By Juan Pablo Garnham, Texas Tribune
Twice last year, Gov. Greg Abbott drew ire from Austin city officials when he suggested that crimes were the result of the city’s new approach to homelessness, in which it has relaxed ordinances prohibiting camping or otherwise posting up in public spaces.
Not only was it unfair, they said, but neither of the crimes were committed by people experiencing homelessness — and one of them happened before any policy changes took effect.
On Saturday afternoon, Abbott landed a more relevant example when the Austin Police Department confirmed that a suspect who fatally stabbed a worker at a local restaurant a day earlier was experiencing homelessness. But Austin leaders said it’s still disingenuous to link the crime to housing status.
Abbott did so even before official confirmation of the man’s homelessness, tweeting on Friday evening that, “When all facts are revealed I bet you’ll learn that the killer was a homeless man with prior arrests.”
“If so Austin’s reckless homeless policy puts lives in danger to murders like this,” the Republican wrote. “Austin leaders must answer for their perilous policies.”
The incident in question happened on Friday morning when, according to Austin police, a “white male in his mid 20s” attacked a customer at a local coffee shop for no apparent reason.
After patrons attempted to detain him, the suspect escaped to a nearby Freebirds World Burrito restaurant, where he stabbed two workers, fatally injuring one of them. The suspect then climbed onto a neighboring roof and fell off it.
Abbott tweeted about the incident twice on Friday, saying in his second message that, “This murder must be condemned by Austin leaders.”
But on Friday night, they instead criticized Abbott’s response as presumptive and said that he failed to establish a link between the crime and the city’s homeless policies.
“It’s misleading and it’s harmful to equate people experiencing homelessness with being criminals,” Mayor Steve Adler said. “It’s like saying that immigrants are rapists. There’s a real damage to society when we demonize people in ways that are simply not true.”
Adler added that he would prefer to speak personally to Abbott rather than debating the issue over Twitter.
In a tweet, Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza suggested that the real problem is the lack of access to mental health services — and Abbott’s leadership.
“The governor suggesting that ATX Council has the authority to change laws on violent attacks/homicide is more of his scapegoating and a distraction from his poor leadership and the failure to fund the mental health and housing resources Texans need,” she wrote.
The City Council rolled back three ordinances in June that had prohibited camping, sitting and lying in public spaces inside city limits. It modified the policies again in October to reinstate the ban on camping but limited it to city sidewalks and areas that are near homeless shelters or at high risk of wildfires.
Abbott swiftly condemned the policy changes as dangerous on his personal social media accounts. But the examples he cited were problematic.
In July, Abbott shared a tweet that alleged that people experiencing homelessness had caused a car crash by running through traffic. But the Austin Police Department later said that no pedestrians were involved in the incident.
In October, he retweeted a video that showed a man damaging a car with metal poles in downtown Austin, adding a comment that said that, “Austin’s policy of lawlessness has allowed vicious acts like this.” But the video was originally posted 17 months before Austin City Council voted to relax its homeless ordinances. And the man’s family confirmed that he was not experiencing homelessness, but rather mental illness.
The governor has also taken action clearing up encampments under highways and opening up a state-owned plot of land in Austin where people experiencing homelessness can stay.
According to the 2019 annual count, Austin has the fourth-largest homeless population in the state. Dallas, the city with the largest population, has twice as many people experiencing homelessness — 4,538. But the count also shows that 48% of Austin’s homeless population are unsheltered — proportionally more than any city in the state.
Individuals that experience homeless in the capital have said they are used to being blamed for violence and other crimes — and that it is unfair.
Matthew Mollica, the executive director of Austin ECHO, the lead agency that plans and implements strategies to end homelessness in Travis County, said that the focus should be on crime victims — not the homeless population.
“This is obviously very tragic, but the governor’s comments are reckless, taking away from the trauma not only from the victims but the witnesses that were there,” said Mollica. “What we are seeing here, with the governor weaponizing instances like this and trying to stoke the fire with propaganda around homelessness, is unfortunate.”
Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
On Saturday morning, prior to the official confirmation of the housing status of the suspect in the stabbing incident, the governor said on Twitter that he was “not attacking homelessness. I’m criticizing the lawlessness promoted by the City of Austin.”
“The City’s top job is public safety and they are failing,” he wrote.