It was a decision made in the dead of the night: on June 20, 2019, at 2 a.m., Austin’s city council legalized homeless camps and panhandling. A year later, in August 2020, the council voted to defund the city’s police budget by more than a third. These decisions sparked immediate consequences for public order—and eventually a fierce backlash from a not-so-silent majority that rejected the council’s progressive agenda on homelessness (though the effects of these policies linger in parts of the city).
This November, Austin voters will have another chance to vote in favor of restoring order. Pending the outcome of Proposition A, Austin could become one of the first major American cities to have its citizens vote to “refund” and restaff the police.
Restoring order will be an uphill battle. The council’s decision to allow homeless encampments had an abrupt impact on Austin. “We quickly saw a difference,” said Greg McCormack, executive director of Front Steps, a local homeless-services provider. Craig Staley, owner of local bodega chain Royal Blue Grocery, agreed: “They changed the world downtown in about three weeks.”
After having been flat for years, homelessness in Texas’s capital exploded. Homeless from other cities migrated across Texas to camp in public. The situation rapidly became unstainable—and deadly. Exposed to the elements and to each other, 10 percent of the city’s homeless died in 2020 alone, with substance abuse being the leading killer. The wave of death continued despite record sums of spending on homeless services: nearly $70 million this fiscal year, combined with over $200 million in federal funding. A study of public spending on the 250 “most expensive” homeless individuals in Travis County tallied a combined annual cost of $223,000 per person.
It was in these circumstances that Proposition B, a grassroots referendum to reinstate the city’s camping ban, made it on the ballot. Thanks to the efforts of Save Austin Now—a bipartisan coalition spearheaded by Republican consultant and county party chair Matt Mackowiak and Democratic activist Cleo Petricek—the proposal made its way through the legislative process, shepherded along by leaders with bulldog organizational instincts. “We didn’t agree on national politics,” Mackowiak acknowledged, describing his relationship with Petricek, “but we had to turn our city around.” The pair put aside their differences to give residents a say on public disorder, even if the increasingly progressive city council didn’t want to listen.
To get Prop. B on the ballot, the group conducted foot campaigns during the height of the Covid-19 lockdowns to collect the necessary tens of thousands of signatures; it faced early rejections of original petitions, battles for city council seats, and even a 1 a.m. argument between Mackowiak and avowed Communist councilmember Greg Casar over the amount of human waste a typical homeless person produces.
Austin mayor Steve Adler predicted the vote would be “very close.” It wasn’t: Prop. B won a decisive 58–42 percent victory this May. The camping ban, despite opposition from the mayor and nine out of ten council members in Austin, garnered more than 40 percent support from Democratic voters, 88 percent from independents, and 92 percent from Republicans. Prop. B won in nearly every neighborhood, too.
It was an important win, but homelessness has been only half the story of Austin’s turn toward disorder. The movement to defund the police also worsened the situation. Amid a national wave of anti-police campaigning, Austin’s fiscal 2020 police budget dropped from $434.5 million in 2019 to $292.2 million. The city council also cut three cadet classes and 150 officers from the budget.
Proposition A, another brainchild of Save Austin Now, would require the city to reverse course, hiring and maintaining more police officers (two per every 1,000 residents), doubling their training, and increasing their presence in the community—all to achieve levels of policing Austin enjoyed just a few years ago.
The impact of the defund efforts has been substantial. Austin’s murder tally is now the highest in history, rising from 33 in 2019 to 61 so far this year. Meantime, the number of sworn officers has dropped by more than 300 over the past year, even as the city’s population has grown by nearly 40,000 since 2019, to just over 1 million. “About 95 percent of the time our shifts don’t meet minimum staffing,” says Ken Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association. After average response times jumped by 20–30 minutes in a single year, Austin announced this past week that police officers will simply stop responding to “non-emergency” 911 calls.
Austinites appear supportive of the ideas behind Prop. A. According to data collected for the Manhattan Institute’s Metro Majority survey, more than half of city residents oppose defunding the police and support a larger police presence in their area. They have confidence in their police (62 percent), and they are more likely than urbanites elsewhere to favor community policing (87 percent) and the recruitment of well-qualified officers (82 percent).
The city council is spreading misinformation about what Prop. A would do, claiming that the city would need to cut funding for parks, libraries, and the arts to pay for the legislation, and telling nonprofits and the fire department union they would be first on the chopping block. But Save Austin Now argues that the messaging doesn’t add up: parks didn’t disappear two years ago when police staffing levels were at the levels Prop. A is aiming to restore. And Austin never cuts a line item except for policing; why would this referendum suddenly create a push for fiscal austerity?
“At the end of the day, it is all about quality of life and standard of living,” Mackowiak explains. The success of his public-order coalition this November depends on like-minded residents turning up at the ballot box.
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