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Pre-pandemic, homelessness was one of Austin's most pressing issues, and COVID has only exacerbated concerns.
Below Austonia digs into the city's homelessness policies—from hygiene infrastructure to the 2019 decision to overturn a ban on camping—and how it has affected the local population.
In an effort to decriminalize homelessness, Austin City Council voted to overturn a ban on camping in June 2019.
Although advocates applauded the decision, local business owners, the Austin Police Association and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott opposed the move, arguing that it did not address the root causes of homelessness and would threaten public health and safety.
Since the ban was overturned, the city's 311 department has reported a marked increase in calls regarding homelessness, based on data obtained by Austonia.
In the year before the council vote, 311 recorded 1,426 homeless service requests.
Since the ban was overturned, the number of calls have nearly quadrupled.
Part of this may be that Austin's homeless population is more visible.
The point-in-time count, an annual census conducted by the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition each January, found a 45% increase in the city's unsheltered population this year, which the organization attributed to increased volunteerism and better counting methods.
But others disputed this explanation, including the local nonprofit Save Austin Now, which has campaigned to reinstate the ban.
"Our homeless population is rapidly growing, and this stunning increase proves the homeless camping ordinance is acting as a magnet for homeless individuals to come to Austin," co-founder and Travis County GOP Chairperson Matt Mackowiak wrote in a statement earlier this year.
Then the pandemic arrived—and with it the risk of outbreaks at shelters and camps.
The city established five protective lodges at motels around town where homeless residents can self isolate and convalesce. It also increased its distribution of water stations, porta-potties and other resources to camps around town in an effort to encourage hygienic practices.
More recently, amid complaints from Austinites who live near some of the homeless camps, the city has resumed more regular cleanups.
This month, contractors will clean dozens of camps across town, mostly under highway overpasses.
The city's watershed protection department also performs regular cleanups at camps near riverbeds and creeks. Since the pandemic began in March, the department has cleaned six such sites.
Kyle Carvell, a spokesperson for the city's public works department, said these cleanups are scheduled regularly and are not "unannounced sweeps." Individuals are able to remain at these camps, and their belongings are not thrown out. Instead the city aims to remove trash and debris.
More on homelessness:
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- No homeless public camping vote on November ballot for Austin ... ›
- Crews clean up trash, needles and human waste at Austin homeless ... ›
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- Austin's homeless shelters weather the holidays—and COVID - austonia ›
- Travis County sheriff IDs body found at recycling center - austonia ›
- Austin Mayor Steve Adler says camping ban 'is not working' - austonia ›
- How Austinites and businesses will vote on homeless camping ban - austonia ›
- Pro vs. con: How should Austin vote on Prop B camping ban? - austonia ›
- Who is homeless in Austin, and why? - austonia ›
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Monday that Texas will opt out of further federal unemployment benefits related to the pandemic effective June 26, citing the number of current job openings and concern about potentially fraudulent unemployment claims. The benefits include a $300 weekly supplement.
"The Texas economy is booming and employers are hiring communities across the state," Abbott said in a statement. "According to the Texas Workforce Commission, the number of job openings in Texas is almost identical to the number of Texans who are receiving unemployment jobs."
TWC listed 837,273 job openings as of Monday afternoon compared to 226,849 unemployment insurance claims filed statewide between March 31 and May 1. An estimated 1 million Texans were unemployed as of March, according to latest estimates released by the state agency.
Some local business owners, including Doc's Backyard Grill owner Charles Milligan, suspect unemployment benefits are deterring Austinites from returning to work. But others agree with economists who say multiple factors are at play, including health concerns and child care availability.
We're seeing lots of posts about how nobody wants to work right now. Just wanted to share our experience.
We received over 60 resumes for a taproom bartender position we posted last week. Every applicant we've set up an interview with has shown up.
People want 𝘨𝘰𝘰𝘥 work.
— Austin Beerworks (@AustinBeerworks) May 11, 2021
Abbott also cited fraudulent unemployment claims. Between March 2020 and April 2021, TWC received 4.48 million unemployment benefit applications, 611,000 or around 14% of which were tagged as suspicious. Most of those tagged were blocked before any benefits were paid out, according to an April 29 press release.
Federal law requires the effective date of such benefits change to be at least 30 days after the U.S. Department of Labor is notified.
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- Buc-ee's avoids national workers shortage with benefits - austonia ›
- Austin restaurants struggle to hire workers after pandemic year ... ›
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