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In need of a solution: Austin City Council forced to identify potential places for homeless to go

Starting Tuesday, the city of Austin will begin enforcing bans on camping, sitting, lying and panhandling in certain areas, including downtown. (Laura Figi/Austonia)

After Austin voters decisively passed Proposition B, City Council is revisiting the idea of sanctioned encampments: places where homeless residents can camp free from the threat of citation, fines or arrest—and where those will go in the city.

Prop B, which will reinstate city bans on sitting, lying, camping and panhandling in certain areas of central Austin starting Tuesday, passed with nearly 58% of the vote in the May 1 election. Council then voted unanimously on Thursday to direct the city manager to develop a plan and budget for temporary sanctioned encampments, including 10 possible sites, one in each council district, by next week.


Council Member Kathie Tovo, who sponsored the resolution, said such sites are critical with the city's emergency shelters and Camp Esperanza, a state-run campsite off of Hwy. 183 near Montopolis, at capacity. "When individuals in encampments ask where they should go, we need to have places to suggest," she said Thursday.

The concerns

The resolution approved Thursday directs city staff to assess all other funding sources before considering those earmarked for affordable housing. Council directed city staff to identify possible city-owned properties that could serve as sanctioned encampments. The dataset below shows properties owned by the city.

Matthew Mollica, executive director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, said it is critical that public works funding is used; if housing dollars are reallocated toward sanctioned encampments, it could worsen the city's homeless problem by defunding the one proven solution. "Creating sanctioned encampments… is a public space management strategy," he said. "It is very clearly not a strategy to end homelessness in our community."

Homelessness experts and city staff say sanctioned encampments are problematic for many reasons: they are expensive to maintain, challenging to manage and hard to close, even when intended to be temporary.

Camp Esperanza, the state-sanctioned homeless camp in Southeast Austin, opened in late 2019 and is home to approximate 150 people. (Jordan Vonderhaar)

The Other Ones Foundation, a local nonprofit, operates the camp, providing work opportunities, case management, hygiene and laundry facilities, and a community shelter, among other services. (Jordan Vonderhaar)

In 2019, city staff declined to make recommendations for sanctioned encampments despite being directed by council to do so, citing 2018 guidance from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. "Neither authorized encampments nor parking areas provide housing for people experiencing homelessness," staff wrote in a memo. "Rather, each option detracts from the staff resources assigned to addressing this moral imperative."

Barbara Poppe, a nationally recognized homelessness policy consultant who has advised the city of Austin, said it is inefficient for cities to provide support services at sanctioned encampments when they could focus on housing efforts. She added that it is also unlikely the city will be able to establish enough sanctioned campsites to serve every homeless person, meaning that some will remain in violation of the ban.

The mandate

Despite these concerns, council is moving forward with two policies they previously abandoned: the camping ban and sanctioned encampments.

Cleo Petricek, co-founder of Save Austin Now, the local political action committee that spearheaded Prop B, is glad the city is moving forward with sanctioned encampments, which she feels are necessary in addition to ongoing efforts to provide housing support. "Regardless of the long-term strategies, it's long-term," she said. "We are in a humanitarian crisis right now."

Petricek points to the state-run campsite as a successful model and said the city's sanctioned encampments should be in industrial areas, far from schools, parks and residential neighborhoods. "It is undeniable that these (camps) will have an impact on surrounding areas," she said, citing recent fires and other crime. "We have to expect these worst-case scenarios."

A fire broke out at the state-sanctioned homeless camp in Southeast Austin on April 2. (Austin Fire Info/Twitter)

Homeless services providers argue this approach is inhumane and leaves homeless people isolated from resources. They also warn that, wherever the sanctioned encampments are located, they are likely to prompt pushback. Petricek, a local Democratic advocate, successfully organized a petition in opposition to a proposed homeless shelter in South Austin, near an elementary school, in 2019. The city's recent hotel purchases, for conversion into homeless housing, also prompted protests.

As Austin police and other city departments begin enforcing the camping ban on Tuesday, homeless advocates say the homeless are left without a clear, legal option: "There is no place for them to go," Mollica said.

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🗓 Saturday

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