After calling for a homeless camp in every district, Austin City Council members fail to support one in their own
City staff compiled a list of 45 possible sanctioned homeless camps, spread out across all 10 districts, and Council members are pushing back against locations in their districts citing concerns ranging from transparency, cost of operation and wildfire risk.
After Austin voters passed Proposition B, which reinstates bans on camping and other activities in certain areas of Central Austin, City Council directed staff to revisit temporary sanctioned camps. It was important, they said, that homeless people have a legal option given the lack of adequate shelter space and long waitlists for housing, but they had otherwise to say after city staff presented a list of possible campsites in their own districts.
District 2 Council Member Vanessa Fuentes (6 sites)
🧵POTENTIAL Sanctioned Campsite Locations: Today, City staff shared its *initial* list of potential campsites in response to the passing of Prop B in the May 1 election.— Vanessa Fuentes 💃🏽 (@VanessaForATX) May 18, 2021
Here’s what you need to know: pic.twitter.com/KxbaLMDDoP
Fuentes asked staff about why many of the parkland sites on the list had the word "Park" omitted from their title, which she said could sow mistrust. "I think it's important we're as transparent and clear as possible," she said. "It doesn't sit well with me that we're not being as transparent as we can be."
After the meeting, Fuentes tweeted that the distribution of sites—nearly half of which are in three East Austin districts—"is absolutely unacceptable."
District 3 Council Member Sabino "Pio" Renteria (7 sites)
One of the sites proposed in Renteria's district—1311 Tillery Street—is also the site of Evergreen Cemetery. "I know you didn't want to put a campsite on a cemetery," he told staff.
Renteria also raised questions about equity, referring to the city's plan to open a hotel property for use as homeless housing in each of the 10 districts. "I'm very hesitant to go out there and raise my hand again unless everyone participates," he said. "We always make that commitment that we're going to have a hotel in every district. It just didn't work out."
District 4 Council Member Greg Casar (3 sites)
Casar did not comment on the proposed sites in his district or the overall sanctioned camp strategy during the Tuesday works session. In a statement to Austonia he said he supports a range of options, from sanctioned camps to housing, and will work to identify good locations for homelessness solutions in his district and across the city.
"I'm committed to the larger goal of drastically reducing homelessness through housing with mental health services, job aid, and resources to those living on the streets," he said. "That is more humane and cost-effective than paying for a continuous cycle of jailing people who have nowhere to go."
District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen (1 site)
Kitchen worried about whether some of the preliminary sites would be nixed once certain criteria, including wildfire risk, were applied. She called the one site proposed in her district, Mary Moore Searight Park, "completely inappropriate" for this reason.
Kitchen also raised questions about the estimated operating costs of operating such sites, citing laundry facilities as a particular concern. (In a Friday memo, staff estimated laundry will cost $175,000 a year for a 50-person sanctioned campsite, or $3,500 per person.) "I'm very concerned about the level of the cost and hoping that we can reduce those," she said.
District 6 Council Member Mackenzie Kelly (3 sites)
Kelly questioned the legality of using city-owned land for temporary designated campsites. "It's my understanding that that's currently against the municipal code for this city," she said. "I want to make sure we get that clarity from the law department and all council is made aware of that before we consider moving forward with that as a recommendation."
District 7 Council Member Leslie Pool (3 sites)
Pool raised questions about using recreation centers—five are included on the preliminary list, including one in her district—for sanctioned campsites. "I don't actually see a path forward for the rec centers," she said, citing public pushback.
Pool also said she is working with her constituents to identify alternative sites in her district. "I'm committed to trying to find a way to make this work," she said. "But the sites that you've designated in District 7, none of them meet that criteria. They just won't work."
District 8 Council Member Paige Ellis (5 sites)
Here is my statement after #ATXCouncil concluded our first conversation around temporary encampments. Folks are rightfully concerned about camping in parks. Please get involved as we move this discussion forward. pic.twitter.com/fz92K8Mzxe— Paige Ellis, City Council District 8 (@PaigeForAustin) May 18, 2021
Ellis also questioned the viability of parkland. In a statement issued after the meeting, she said she does not believe the sites in her district are appropriate and has urged staff to identify other options that are closer to services, such as grocery stores and transit. "It has never been Council's intention to have anyone camping in our public parks," she said.
District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo (6 sites)
PEH camp fire has extended into our iconic Buford Fire Tower at Cesar Chavez and Colorado. pic.twitter.com/3fd0Y84wOR— Austin Fire Info (@AustinFireInfo) April 2, 2021
Tovo echoed her colleagues' concerns about parkland and pleaded with her constituents to help identify alternative sites. "Please help us," she said.
Tovo also stressed the importance of enforcing safety rules at designated campsites, citing the presence of propane containers and generators at the camp along the hike and bike trail downtown. "Having now had a second fire at an encampment in my district … We must build confidence with the public that if we set up designated camping areas, we will enforce some of those very basic safety measures."
District 10 Council Member Alison Alter (2 sites)
In an email to constituents, Alter said that the possible sites released on Tuesday are still being vetted according to criteria, including flood and wildfire risk. "As you can tell, those two criteria alone make the Bull Creek Park site, in particular, wholly unsuitable," she wrote.
Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison, District 1 (9 sites)
Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison was absent from the work session on Tuesday and did not respond to a request for comment. Her district has the most possible sites, but staff repeatedly stressed that they are still searching for other possible options, including on private land.
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Austin's Delta 8 industry has been turned on its head after Texas health officials clarified that the cannabinoid is on the state list of illegal substances, though it was previously believed to be legal by most retailers, consumers and manufacturers.
House Bill 1325, which was signed in June 2019 by Gov. Greg Abbott, and the Farm Bill, signed into law by former President Donald Trump in 2018, legalized any hemp product containing less than .3% THC. The same bills were thought to have made Delta 8 legal, though the Texas Department of State Health Services added a notice on its website saying it was still a controlled substance as of Friday, Oct. 15.
Both the federal and state governments keep separate lists on what is considered a controlled substance. Marijuana is considered Schedule I, a category reserved for substances with "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse," both statewide and federally.
Austin-based CBD retailer Grassroots Harvest CEO Kemal Whyte, like many CBD shop retailers, was blindsided by the announcement. Many small businesses rely on Delta 8 for their sales—Green Herbal Care CBD said about 90% of its sales come from Delta 8—and Whyte said he is frustrated by the inconsistencies in the drug scheduling system.
Since 87% of Texans support the legalization of marijuana, at least for medical use, per a recent poll, Whyte said he wonders who this legislation is for.
"It's gonna have a massive impact on small businesses—there's just no way around it," Whyte said. "The reality is, we don't want to push out anything bad for our customers, we want this to benefit our customers and to help them. If we can make money while doing it, that's the American dream. What are we doing, whose benefit is this for?"
Delta 8 surged in popularity after the perceived legalization—consumers enjoyed its lower psychotropic potency, decreased anxiety while using it and the peace of mind as a legal way to get high. So in order to protect their products and livelihoods, both Grassroots Harvest and Austin-based manufacturer Hometown Heroes are taking legal action.
Whyte said Grassroots Harvest is suing DSHS, saying their action is creating negative effects in the market. Meanwhile, a Hometown Heroes spokesperson said the company is in the process of filing a temporary restraining order that would pause the ban on Delta-8 in the state of Texas.
Threats against Delta 8 are not new—DSHS lost a lawsuit trying to make "smokable hemp products" illegal last year and Texas lawmakers had been considering a bill that would make Delta 8 illegal, though it was dropped after the clarification was made.
Hometown Heroes released a formal statement in response to the DSHS rule.
"I need to be clear—we love Texas, we're just choosing to fight for the will of the people in regards to cannabis in Texas," Hometown Hero CEO Lukas Gilkey said in a statement. "(Texas DSHS) are using backhanded ways to create legislation and go against the will of the people."
Whyte laments the fact that it would be easier legally to "open up a strip club that also sells guns," and said he can't post customer testimonials that mention the benefits of Delta 8 without getting hit with a cease and desist from the Food and Drug Administration. Whyte said he isn't opposed to regulation—far from it—he just wants to see it go through the correct channels.
"The fact that they're stunting our ability to communicate with our clients that want to learn about this, you're preventing us from communicating with them and teaching them, or spreading information that we know," Whyte said. "I think that that in and of itself opens up a lot of questions."
Grassroots Harvest still has Delta 8 products on its shelves for the time being but for how long, Whyte doesn't know.
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Austin Public Health and other clinics around Austin are now providing booster shots for all three vaccines, including Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, to fully vaccinated individuals after both Pfizer and J & J were approved by the CDC on Wednesday.
APH and Austin clinics, which were already administering the approved Pfizer booster, will begin distributing shots as soon as Friday.
Those who received the second dose of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine more than six months ago are elligble to receive a booster if they are over 65 or if they are over 18 and:
- Live in a long-term care environment
- Have underlying medical conditions
- Work or live in high-risk settings, such as schools, hospitals or correctional facilities
Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes said in a media Q&A Friday that APH is encouraging boosters just as much as they have urged residents to get their first and second doses.
"Boosters are incredibly important to keeping our community protected and hospitalizations low," Walkes said. "If we can stay on top of our vaccinations, we provide protections for our most vulnerable and make it that much harder for COVID to spread in our community."
Eligible residents are free to choose the same booster as their first doses or "mix and match," per the CDC announcement.
Those looking for another dose can simply bring their vaccination card to APH centers or the dozens of Walgreens and CVS locations in the metro, which began administering doses Friday.
Additional updated guidance from the CDC allows for all eligible individuals to choose which vaccine they receive as a "mix-and-match" booster dose. It is advised to remember to bring your CDC COVID-19 Vaccination Card showing the original doses with you when going for booster shots.
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