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City staff have reviewed more than 70 city-owned properties that could serve as temporary sanctioned homeless camps and will present potential site options in each council district to Austin City Council on Tuesday, according to a memo issued late Friday. They estimate that each camp will cost between $1.4 and $1.9 million to operate on an annual basis and have a capacity of 50 to 100 people.
Council members voted unanimously last week to direct staff to develop a plan and a budget for temporary sanctioned encampments after the resounding victory of Proposition B in the May 1 election. The proposition, which reinstated city bans on sitting, lying, camping and panhandling in certain areas of central Austin earlier this week, forced city officials to revisit temporary sanctioned encampments, an idea they previously abandoned because of concerns around their cost and upkeep.
"Consequently, in the face of insufficient shelter capacity, sanctioned encampments may be viewed as an alternative to illegal public camping, the imposition of criminal charges on the unsheltered, and the unintended consequence of increased numbers of encampments relocating into less visible, wooded areas that present high wildfire and flood risks," Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey and Parks and Recreation Department Director Kimberly McNeeley wrote in the memo.
Staff recommend that each sanctioned camp offer basic infrastructure, including:
- Water service
Other services may include perimeter fencing, trash collection, laundry facilities, storage and transportation.
Sites will also require general operational staff, 24/7 security personnel and service providers, with a focus on those that can help connect homeless residents to permanent housing and offer behavioral health support.
In addition to annual costs, each site is expected to require one-time startup costs, such as extending access to electricity and water lines. Staff's preliminary analysis suggests these could range from $200,000 to several million dollars depending on the site, according to the memo.
Although Prop B passed with nearly 58% of the vote and council has directed staff to consider temporary sanctioned camps, the memo raises familiar concerns about the strategy, including the difficulty of closing such sites once opened and the possibility of ballooning operating costs. Some Austinites, including Council Member Mackenzie Kelly, have also raised concerns about the possibility of sanctioned camps on city parkland.
Exhibit A: Why we should not allow homeless camping in public parks.
That's the tweet. #atxcouncil pic.twitter.com/jV29nMwRQM
— Mackenzie Kelly ❗️ (@mkelly007) May 14, 2021
Others support the sanctioned camp model. Max Moscoe is community engagement coordinator for The Other Ones Foundation, a local nonprofit that helps operate the state-sanctioned homeless camp in Southeast Austin. "Having a central hub of resources directly in the place where people are staying makes access to service much easier for clients," he wrote in an email to Austonia. "It is also helpful to have people in a consistent and safe place where they can gain traction and stability."
City staff are due to issue two subsequent reports to council, in addition to Friday's memo. By June 1, they will provide a proposed implementation schedule, potential funding and possible partners that can help share the cost or provide services. By July 1, they will identify land within the city limits that could accommodate tiny home structures to serve as temporary housing and the estimated related costs.
The Ending Community Homelessness Coalition conducts an annual homeless census. This year's count was canceled due to the pandemic, but in 2020 the nonprofit counted 1,574 unsheltered homeless people in the Austin-Travis County area.
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Austin's camping ban is back. After being lifted by City Council in 2019, the ban takes effect again today, after nearly 58% of city residents voted to reinstate it in the May 1 election.
The city of Austin announced a multi-phase plan to implement and enforce ordinances related to Proposition B, which will reinstate bans on camping as well as sitting, lying and panhandling in certain areas downtown, in West Campus and in near East Austin. Arrests will not occur until at least July 10 and will only be used as a last resort, Austin Police Department Interim Chief Joseph Chacon said during a press conference Tuesday.
Save Austin Now, the local political action committee that spearheaded Prop B, has called on the city to enforce the camping ban and related ordinances immediately. "Disrespecting the will of the voters in this way is a 'slap in the face' of the nearly 91,000 Austinites who demand their city become safe and clean again for everyone," co-founders Matt Mackowiak and Cleo Petricek said in a statement Tuesday.
During the first phase of the implementation plan, city officials and police are focused on education and outreach, making sure homeless people understand the new ordinances and where they can access social services. Other than voluntary compliance, they do not expect to require people to move during this period. "We are laser-focused on addressing homelessness in a safe and humane manner," City Manager Spencer Cronk said at the same event.
Ray Stansberry moved his tent outside of City Hall four days ago in hopes that he could draw some attention to his case: he's been on a local waiting list for housing for seven months and even attended a virtual tour of Community First! Village, a development that is home to more than 220 formerly chronically homeless residents. But he recently received a letter saying his application for a housing voucher was missing some documents, so he remains on the streets. "That's on me," he told Austonia.
Stansberry didn't know when the police might start issuing citations or making arrests related to the newly reinstated bans. For now, he plans to keep looking for work, which he said has proven difficult because of a criminal record and a leg injury. He is also on shelter waitlists in San Antonio and Houston. If all else fails, he'll move to Florida. "Sometimes you just got to go to a whole new location," he said.
The point-in-time count, an annual census of the city's homeless population conducted by the Ending Community Homeless Coalition each January, found 1,574 unsheltered homeless people in Austin-Travis County in 2020. The 2021 count was canceled due to concerns about the pandemic.
Local elected officials and homeless service providers have expressed concern about where homeless people will go.
Council members voted unanimously on Thursday to direct the city manager to develop a plan and budget for temporary encampments, including 10 possible sites, one in each council district. Council Member Kathie Tovo, who sponsored the resolution, said such sites are critical with the city's emergency shelters and Camp Esperanza, state-run campsite off of Hwy. 183 near Montopolis, at capacity.
Members also voted to adopt and fund the Homeless Encampment Assistance Link, or HEAL, initiative in early February. The $4.3 million plan aims to connect around 100 homeless residents at four major camps with housing or shelter by the end of August.
These efforts will take time, however. In the meantime, ECHO Executive Director Matthew Mollica told Austonia last week that homeless people are left without a clear, legal option: "There is no place for them to go."
This story has been updated to include more details after a noon press conference with city officials and a statement issued by Save Austin Now.
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The city of Austin announced a multi-phase plan to implement and enforce ordinances related to Proposition B starting Tuesday, when they take effect. Arrests will not occur until at least July 10.
Prop B, which passed with nearly 58% of the vote in the May 1 election, will reinstate bans on sitting, lying, camping and panhandling in certain areas of Central Austin.
Phase one: will begin Tuesday and focus on community engagement and education. It will last for 30 days, during which time Austin police will provide verbal warnings, except in the case of imminent threats to health or safety, and available resources.
Phase two: will also last 30 days, where police will issue written warnings and citations. All citations issued will be directed to the Downtown Austin Community Court, where the cited person will be connected with social services and possibly assigned community service.
Phase three: police will make arrests and clear camps where homeless people have not complied with initial citations.
Phase four: APD will issue citations and arrests as necessary.
"It is important for Austinites to understand that implementation of the camping restrictions will require a process that will extend over several weeks," the city said in a press release Monday.
Save Austin Now, the local political action committee that spearheaded Prop B, has called on the city to enforce the camping ban and other ordinances immediately.
Just drove by this homeless camp fire that started at Ben White in 360, across from Cavendars.
Enforce the public camping ban now!@MayorAdler @GregCasar
Join us: https://t.co/1Q7XRhKTsR pic.twitter.com/HG2OvTVhbF
— SaveAustinNow (@SaveAustinNow) May 10, 2021
In addition to this plan, Austin City Council voted unanimously on Thursday to direct the city manager to develop a plan and budget for temporary encampments, including 10 possible sites, one in each council district, by this 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 at the meeting.
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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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