State Representative and congressional hopeful Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, has decided to make a political wedge out of a complex issue that’s roiled Texas’ capital since 2019: the city’s back-and-forth battle over whether and how harshly to criminalize homeless camping.
In a recent campaign mailer, Rodriguez, who’s represented a southeastern swath of Travis County for two decades, attacks progressive Austin City Council Member Greg Casar for having “designed the disastrous ordinance lifting the ban on tent cities in Austin … allowing homeless people to set up tents anywhere and making the city less safe.” The mailer also features an ominous picture of an unhoused person’s tent with caution tape in the foreground.
The mailer comes as Rodriguez and Casar, along with former San Antonio City Council Member Rebecca Viagran, are squaring off in the Democratic primary for Congressional District 35, which stretches from Austin to San Antonio and is being vacated by longtime U.S. House Rep. Lloyd Doggett.
In June 2019, the Austin City Council voted 9-2 to relax a trio of ordinances targeting the unhoused, including a blanket ban on camping in public. Casar helped lead that effort. At the time, a city audit had recommended the move, a number of community organizations were pushing hard for the change, and homeless service providers broadly supported it.
Rodriguez, so far as the Observer can find, did not speak out against the policy change at the time. Neither would he endorse the successful ballot initiative to reinstate the city’s homeless camping ban in May of last year.
Following the vote, unhoused Austinites emerged from the woods and hidden places, with many congregating in highway underpasses. Many who had slept on cardboard and blankets now erected tents. Homelessness became significantly more visible in the city, though yearly counts have shown little change in the total number of unhoused.
Contrary to Rodriguez’s mailer, Austin’s camping policies at no time allowed people to set up tents “anywhere.” Camping in public parks and camping that blocked use of a public space or endangered the camper or others remained prohibited. But Austin police resisted enforcing the relaxed ordinance, and, after COVID hit, the city implemented a pause recommended by the Centers for Disease Control on displacing encampments. Tents then sprawled into more parks.
All along, a backlash raged: Governor Greg Abbott, the Austin police union, and local right-wing operatives spread fear and propaganda about the city’s homeless. Local news outlets began treating any crime with an unhoused suspect as newsworthy. A group called Save Austin Now, helmed by the county’s GOP chair, successfully put an initiative on the ballot to reinstate the old camping ban. Last May, Austin voters reinstated it. The city has since cleared a number of highly visible encampments.
Rodriguez is likely eager for a wedge issue, as the Casar campaign seems to have started off strong. A recent internal poll showed Casar at 48 percent, with Rodriguez at 20 and Viagran at 14, and Casar has racked up a suite of labor and national endorsements. Casar also proactively announced a fundraising haul of $460,000 early this year. (For what it’s worth, at least in East Austin where I live, Casar is also winning the yard sign primary by a mile.)
Rodriguez is right, of course, that allowing increased homeless camping is politically risky. After all, Austin voters already put an end to the short-lived humanitarian experiment that permitted the unhoused increased access to public space. We’ll see now whether there’s any juice left in the backlash for Rodriguez to squeeze.
Editor’s Note: Laura Hernandez Holmes, the board chair for the Texas Democracy Foundation, is employed by Greg Casar’s campaign. TDF is the nonprofit organization that publishes the Texas Observer. The TDF board plays no role in the Observer‘s journalism.