AUSTIN, Texas - Homeless camps quickly expanded across Austin shortly after the city struck down its local ban on camping in public places. A site under I-35 between 7th & 8th streets was one of the first to grab the attention of state lawmakers.
On Monday, members of the Senate Local Government Committee held a hearing on Senate Bill 987 which would make it illegal to set up camps on public property.
"Every night my neighbors and I see something that is going on that is not right. And as I said before there is nobody to help," said Amanda Geurkink, who was among those who came to the Texas State Capitol to testify for the bill.
A homeless camp is located near her home and she is worried about the safety of her daughter as well as her neighbors. However, the big reason why Amanda said she got involved in the debate was a woman living in a tent across from her home who was a victim of sex trafficking.
"So I'm here making a plea to the state so they may intervene and say, look at least let's make a step towards some people and all people maybe help and maybe a safe place to be," said Geurkink.
The legislation, sponsored by state Sen.Dawn Buckingham (R-Lakeway) and state Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown), would make it a Class C misdemeanor to set up an illegal camp in a public place anywhere in Texas. Local governments would be allowed to pass tougher bans. Cities that refuse to enforce the law could lose state funding.
The Austin City Council has been criticized for striking down its camping ban about 2 years ago without a plan to provide shelter for the transient community. Austin Mayor Steve Adler Monday defended that action and issued a statement against the legislation, it read in part;
"Senate Bill 987’s camping ban doesn't do anything to get people out of tents and off our streets. All SB987 does is impose possible jail and fines for those without homes. At best, it will force those without shelter to hide and that’s even less safe."
The Senate bill has a companion bill in the House, House Bill 1925, which is a step closer to a full floor debate. The bills are not tied to the local proposition to re-instate Austin's camping ban. The final votes on all three, however, could take place about the same time.