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 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.
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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Republic Square Park has turned into a Ford-themed fiesta for its Built to Connect pop-up experience, complete with test drives, off-roading and an inside look at the Tesla-rivaling electric vehicles that the motor vehicle company is planning to integrate over the next decade.
The outdoor driving event is free, open to the public and will stay in the park from now until Oct. 24, offering rides on Bronco Mountain, a 0-40 mph zip in the 2022 all-electric Ford F-150 Lightning and a chance to win an original Ford Bronco.
The event kicked off with a panel of speakers, including Austin Director of Transportation Rob Spillar, Ford General Manager Darren Palmer and engineering specialists discussing Ford's goals to make it so that 50% of the vehicles on the road are electric by 2030.
As an eco-conscious city, Spillar said that around 4,000 vehicles, or 22% of the Texas electric vehicle market, as well as over 15,000 plugins lie in Austin, meaning driving electric just got accessible.
"Austin, as you know, is a fast-growing modern city that is committed to protecting the long term health and viability of our communities and strategies that reduce greenhouse gases, mitigate the effects of climate change and improve the drone quality of life here in Central Texas for all of our residents," Spillar said.
And Ford's electric vehicles are putting up some steep competition for newly-Austin-based company Tesla. The new electric Mustang Mach-E and F-150 Lighting offer amenities that used to be exclusive to Musk's brand, such as the BlueCruise self-driving network. The cars also boast a 300-mile range on a single charge, assisted reverse technology and access to the biggest charging network outside of the home.
Plus, Ford's got affordability on its side. The F-150 Lightning starts at $39,974 and the Mustang Mach-E starts at $42,895, while the cheapest Tesla model, the Model 3, starts at $41,990 and averages 262 miles on a single charge.
Speaking of price, the numbers on the electric vehicles may look like a little more than you'd like to pay for your transport, but Palmer promises it will pay off. In addition to a $7,500 tax credit you can earn for your sustainability, you'll never have to buy a pricey tank of gas again.
"Personally, I have not found one customer ever, who would go back to gas so that says something," Palmer said. "I realized, at $51,000, that car outruns every childhood hero car I ever had."
Texas buyers: take note. The Ford Lightning can power your house for three to 10 days, just in case the statewide power grid fails. You can take it glamping with you, so you don't have to leave the comfort of modern life behind, and in a pinch, Palmer said he's even seen a wedding party powered by the truck.
Ford is investing $30 billion into the U.S. market to meet demand by 2025 and the new electric truck already has over 150,000 reservations.
"I think they're going to take off much faster than you expect—they're going to be extremely, extremely popular next year," Palmer said. "With the incentives that are available today, this is starting to become more mainstream and viable for more and more families. We couldn't have done that before, we didn't have the technology, or the technology at that price."
The event is ongoing through next weekend from 12-9 p.m. Monday-Friday and 9 a.m.- 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
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The Austin Police Department is searching for a man who is believed to be behind a series of robberies that is "sexual in nature and is escalating."
Three robbery cases that took place in North Austin within a 30-day period are being investigated by police, who report the victims all had similar descriptions for suspects in the case. The suspect is described as a 20-25-year-old Spanish-speaking Hispanic man, approximately 5'3, thin build, recently shaved with black hair. Police say he is known to typically wear athletic clothing and used a knife on each of the victims.
Here's a breakdown of the cases:
1. At 7:56 a.m. on Sept. 22 at the 1600 block of Rutland Drive, a woman was walking alone and returning from her child's school when a suspect walking by inappropriately touched her. The suspect then grabbed her by the arm, threatened her with a knife and demanded "her property."
2. At 8:10 a.m. on Oct. 11 at 1700 block of Colony Creek Drive, a woman was walking to her child's school when a man approached her with a knife and then demanded her personal items. The suspect then said he would return the items in return for sex.
3. At 11:03 a.m. on Oct. 13 at the 9300 block of Northgate Boulevard, a woman was with her child in the laundry room of an apartment complex when a man walked in performing a sexual act. The suspect demanded personal items from the victim, threatening to hurt the victim and take her child.
Police cautioned the public to walk without earbuds, stay alert and report suspicious activity to the police.
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