City finds homeless camping in Austin parks, works to connect them to services

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — On Friday, November 15, Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department (PARD) conducted a survey of people experiencing homelessness at three locations, including Barton Creek Wilderness Park, Gaines Creek Greenbelt and Williamson Creek Greenbelt.

PARD said they chose those locations based on spots where they’d been getting reports about people experiencing homelessness.

This comes after months of heated debate about whether and where people experiencing homelessness should be allowed to camp as well as new efforts by city, state, and private actors to better address homelessness in Austin.

The team that set out into parks for the survey included Parks and Recreation staff as well as Austin-Travis County EMS Homeless Outreach Street Team members and a Community health Paramedic. PARD explained that this team didn’t just search one spot, they combed through the entire area of these parks.

During the study, the team did find fifteen people experiencing homelessness in these thee parklands. Camping is not allowed at city parks (with the exception that those who pay entry fees can camp at Emma Long Metropolitan Park are allowed to camp).

PARD explained that one of the homeless individuals they spoke with during Friday’s survey had just been informed he’d been approved for a housing voucher. Austin-Travis County EMS explained that their employees on scene helped talk with that person about how to take the next steps to get into housing.

“That’s the difficulty of having people out in the parks experiencing homelessness and kind of moving around different areas,” said Wes Bickham, the Active Environmental Conservation Program Manager for PARD. “The same things can happen with people staying under the bridges, the service providers will get the news that they’ve been approved for a housing voucher, and then they have to go out and find those people. And that becomes difficult when people are constantly are being forced to move around and find different places to live.”

“So, if we hadn’t have done this it might have taken a little more time to notify this individual,” Bickham added.

This was not an enforcement operation and the people experiencing homelessness during this study were simply warned about the city rules related to camping, no citations were issued. Bickham said that Austin Police Department is the agency charged with enforcing those rules through the Parks Department.

Bickham explained that people experiencing homelessness have camped in city parks for years. Of the people found camping in the parks during Friday’s survey, Bickham doesn’t believe the people camping there were doing so in response to any of the city’s recent changes to ordinances related to camping in public.

“We do feel that with people being moved out from underneath the bridges, we are going to see a larger flux of people moving into the wooded areas, ” Bickham said, referencing recent efforts by TxDOT at the direction of Governor Greg Abbott to clear out homeless encampments beneath state overpasses.

“But at this time, the areas that we went into, we saw pretty consistent numbers to what we’ve seen in the past and dealt with,” Bickham noted.

During the survey Friday, park staff told the homeless people they encountered about the city rule which specifies no camping is allowed inside parks.

Bickham said when the city staff explained the rules to people experiencing homelessness, “they understand that.”

“[People experiencing homelessness] ask for different places that they can go, that they are allowed to go, the ones that do ask,” he continued.

During this survey, where did PARD staff tell people they could go to camp?

“In the past, it’s been difficult, we always recommend the long-time shelters that have been in place, in Austin, but with that overcrowding and on a waitlist, there really wasn’t anywhere for us to be able to tell people where they can go.”

But now, Bickham says, “we are recommending that they are looking into the state facility that’s open off of 183, although here’s a lot of fear and uncertainty that goes with that location.”

Bickham was referencing the plot of state-owned land off of U.S. Highway 183 and Montopolis Drive which Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced on November 7 would be used as a temporary place for people experiencing homelessness to camp instead of beneath state overpasses.

Also during the PARD survey Friday,  EMS staff and the Community Health Paramedic were able to talk to the people experiencing homelessness about services that are available in the community. An ATCEMS spokesperson explained that their employees who helped with this survey followed up to offer people experiencing homelessness support on previous treatment and offered them things like access to substance use treatment and getting in line for housing.

“We are called pretty consistently on a weekly basis to go do outreach, to go to reports of people experiencing homelessness in the parks,” Bickham said, explaining that parks staff on a regular basis will talk with people experiencing homelessness and attempt to get local services to them. He said the effort Friday was to give the department a better picture of how encampments may be happening throughout city parks.

This was the first time PARD had carried out a survey like this, he said, and he said the department has plans to periodically run these surveys in other areas.

“With over 20,000 acres that we manage, the scope is quite large, so we are going to go to certain areas where we’ve had hotspots of past incidences of people experiencing homelessness,” Bickham said.

In June, the council voted to repeal previous bans on camping, sitting, and lying down in public, with the intention of decriminalizing homelessness. That vote sparked differing opinions over the best way to address homelessness and where people experiencing homelessness should be allowed in the city.

That debate even caught the attention of state leaders, Texas Governor Greg Abbott expressed his concern over Austin’s policies on social media, and over the past few months, a public Twitter back-and-forth has ensued between Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Governor Greg Abbott over Austin’s rules.

The city council voted this fall to put some of the old restrictions on camping in public back in place, translating into new rules which went into effect in late October.

Governor Abbott called for the city to make “consequential improvement” on addressing homelessness by November 1, and at the start of November, state agencies stepped in at his direction, helping again to clear homeless encampments from overpasses and providing a temporary homeless camp.

City policy prior to this year already stated that people are not allowed to camp in parks and PARD explained that none of the changes the city of Austin has made this year have altered that ban on camping at city parks.

Separate from the PARD Survey, Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition conducts an annual survey of people experiencing homelessness throughout Travis County. The results of that count are necessary to be eligible for some federal funding. Volunteer registration for the January 2020 Point in Time Count in Austin has just started. ECHO is looking for 800 volunteers for that count. To volunteer with that count, look here.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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