Buford Tower, following the fire (Photo by Jana Birchum)
On Thursday April 1, three fires broke out near unprotected Austinite camps, fueling talk of the city’s homelessness policy and Proposition B on the May 1 ballot that banned parts of Austin from public camping should be reintroduced. The fire at the iconic Buford Tower in Cesar Chavez west of Congress, built in the 1930s and formerly a training tower for the Austin Fire Department, has been classified as a “fire” by the AFD, meaning it was deliberately set. Hours later, a second fire ignited in the US state-sanctioned Esperanza Community 183 in southeast Austin and a third off South I-35.
No one was injured in any of the fires. In a press briefing Friday with city officials and lawyers, Chris Baker of the Other Ones Foundation said 10 people were displaced and their belongings burned in Esperanza. Mayor Steve Adler and Chas Moore of the Austin Justice Coalition told reporters Prop B could make emergencies like this one more dangerous for unhodged communities. “The fact that nobody died … is a miracle,” said Moore. “But I guarantee you that we won’t be so lucky if these people are pushed back to the very edge of our communities and our city.”
Prop B supporters used the fires as an opportunity to blunt, including Governor Greg Abbott, Senator John Cornyn and Councilor Mackenzie Kelly, who tweeted that camps were “unsafe, unsanitary and ridiculous … a public safety issue.” While Austin voters are considering Prop B, a citizens’ initiative put on the ballot by the GOP-supported Save Austin Now coalition, Texas lawmakers are considering bills, particularly the 1925 House Bill (by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione , R-Southlake). with a Senate escort from Senator Dawn Buckingham (R-Lakeway) to ban public camping nationwide and empower the state to overturn local community policies to decriminalize homelessness.
Members of the Coalition Homes Not Handcuffs against Prop B, as well as the director of the Foundation Communities Walter Moreau and members of the council, pleaded for housing and not for criminalization in the Friday press. “The same voices expressing dissatisfaction with the visibility of the unhoused also expressed dissatisfaction with it [them] be protected … in their communities. Where should they go “Asked Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison.” The solution is not tickets and arrests. The solution is housing, housing, housing. “