Natasha Harper-Madison’s biblical case against Prop B

This is an excerpt from the March 18 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

I finally got around to watching the ATXelerator forum on Prop B — May ballot initiative to reinstate the homelessness camping ban. The online discussion pitted Matt Mackowiak, the head of the Travis County Republican Party who is leading the Prop B effort, against CM Natasha Harper-Madison and Matt Mollica, the executive director of ECHO Austin, the homelessness advocacy group.

Mackowiak, a professional political consultant and frequent talking head on local TV, was characteristically insolent and hyperbolic, displaying contempt for both the people he was talking with and the people he was talking about.

To hear Mackowiak tell it, City Council’s repeal of the camping ban is responsible not only for the proliferation of homelessness encampments in public places but for the homelessness crisis itself. He says Austin has become a “magnet” for homeless people from around the state and country. He specifically claimed that there are “nonprofits” around the country facilitating this by “putting the homeless on buses to cities they want to go to.”

“There’s a program called Operation Homestead, where nonprofits put people on buses to the cities they want to go to and get them out of other cities around the country. Austin is probably the single most attractive place in the country right now for a homeless person to go, partially because of the weather but partially because of the camping ordinance, which basically allows them to do anything they want, anytime they want, anywhere they want, with very, very few restrictions and almost no enforcement whatsoever.”

Mackowiak is thus describing homeless people as an invasive species that the city is allowing to spawn. It’s also remarkable to see an American, let alone a Texan, let alone a Texas Republican, express horror at people exercising freedom of movement and of a government that allows people “to do anything they want …. with very, very few restrictions.” Isn’t that the story of Texas that Greg Abbott tries to tell every day?

(Also, I’m having trouble finding any meaningful evidence of the bussing homeless people to Austin operation that Mackowiak referenced. The only “Operation Homestead” that my trusty Google is turning up is a group of activists who took over vacant buildings on behalf of Seattle’s homeless in the early 90’s. I have requested more information from Mackowiak; he hasn’t replied yet.)

And yet, despite all of the dehumanizing language, Mackowiak insists that he cares about the homeless (“I’m a Christian”) and that lifting the camping ban has actually made life worse for them.

Harper-Madison offered a respectful and compassionate contrast. She was likely the best ambassador possible for the anti-Prop B forces. I found her Scripture-infused opening comment particularly strong:

“Austin is not the only city grappling with homelessness. The City Council did not create Austin’s homelessnesss crisis in 2019. Poverty has been a part of civilization long before Jesus himself declared without qualification that blessed be the poor. And despite that pretty clear statement, there’s still that stubborn theological tradition woven into American history about how being poor, is a sign of sinfulness. I think what we did is recognize that you don’t have to be rich and successful to be blessed in the love of God.”

I say this as an atheist: the language of the Bible is a far more effective tool for social justice than the language of the academy. Why? Because far more people have gone to Church and learned “love thy neighbor” than have gone to college and learned about critical race theory. The more progressives understand this, the more they’ll win.

NHM calls out NIMBYism

On at least one front, Mackowiak was right: the city is not doing a good job of housing the homeless. Some of the city’s efforts have been disrupted by the pandemic, which diverted some space designated for permanent supportive housing to quarantine people recovering from covid and just generally prompted a diversion of resources and attention. But there has been frustration on City Council with City Manager Spencer Cronk’s slow movement on implementing the plans they’ve passed to get people into housing.

Harper-Madison also stressed over and over again that the issue was “housing, housing, housing, housing, all housing types, all parts of the city.” She even conceded a common argument made by conservatives, who point to the Community First homeless community as an example of private sector success. That type of housing settlement, she said, is not allowed by Austin’s land development code, and that’s a problem.

Harper-Madison thus described Prop B:

“This ballot item won’t create new housing. It won’t invest in services … it won’t stop anyone from holding a cardboard sign at an intersection. It will simply punish people who can’t afford a bedroom in our increasingly unaffordable city.”

What’s the actual problem?

I do think there’s a good chance that Prop B passes because it’s certainly not just conservatives who are upset about the camping situation. It is awful. In my own neighborhood, the sidewalks under the highway at Ben White & Menchaca have now been completely taken over by tents. I don’t think anyone could look at that and not conclude that it is a societal failure.

But is the failure that the world’s most prosperous society has people living in abject misery, or is it that that misery is now visible? For what it’s worth, I think one can believe the greater failure is the former and still believe that there should be greater restrictions on where people can camp. Whatever the answer is, the only fool-proof solution is housing, housing, housing.

This is an excerpt from the March 18 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

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