AUSTIN (KXAN) — Early Monday on the same morning that TxDOT crews planned to start cleaning up underpasses across Austin, many of those experiencing homelessness were awake and gathering their belongings.
“We’ve been up all night,” Andrea Aguilar said.
Aguilar posted a sign to a concrete column that read, “Mr. Abbott!!! Protect the Homeless,” and another reading, “We are worth a safe solution.”
Across the road, James Pruett is nowhere to be found. KXAN spoke with Pruett on Tuesday to learn what the 39-year-old planned to do.
“I’ll just disappear,” he said. “That’s what they want us to do, be out of their site.”
Pruett decided to move into the woods saying, “I just need to pack all my stuff, packed, and I’ll just ship out into the woods for a little bit.”
He believes this situation could have been handled a lot differently from the beginning and criticized city leaders.
“The governor is doing what he’s supposed to do because his constituents are on him, but the mayor should have laid out some rules to begin with. The council should have come out with a structured deal, so we weren’t just coming out here with permission to do whatever, and that messed it up because some of us don’t have common sense,” Pruett said.
Later in the day, however, it turned out that the Texas Department of Transportation cleaned only one location Monday.
Governor Greg Abbott previously said he wanted homeless camps under Interstate 35, Highway 183 and U.S. 290 cleared, but Monday, TXDOT confirmed it cleaned only State Highway 71 and West Gate Boulevard.
“It is a monumental change,” said Cleo Petricek, who lives in south Austin and is a member of Safe Austin For Everyone Project.
She said she also noticed a difference at camps a few blocks down. “One thing for sure that I don’t see are mattresses. This was littered with mattresses and trash everywhere,” she said.
Integral Care explained, it had its special outreach teams go out to different camps to give people a heads up about the impending cleanup.
They said the warnings gave people a chance to “protect essential documents, medication and other important items.” The outreach teams knew about 90 percent of the people they interacted with Monday. Integral Care said some were current clients and others were people they’re trying to engage in services.
But the wait to get into a home is a long wait list. Integral Care said the Coordinated Entry program has a housing list of over 5,000.
Petricek said that’s why the state’s intervention shouldn’t end at cleanups.
“We have to look at temporary structures,” she said. “Any type of structure has to be better than putting them in such a high traffic area. To know that they can possibly be hit by somebody. The loss of life. Forget the eyesore of this all. We don’t want to lose people.”
Austin Police Chief Brian Manley said at the Public Safety Commission, as far as he knows, nothing is stopping people from returning to areas cleared by TXDOT.
“As far as how the state will approach that in the weeks coming, we’ll wait to see, but my understanding right now is that they’re not being restricted from returning,” he said.
The city ordinance does not prohibit people from camping under highways as long as they’re not being a safety hazard to themselves or others and aren’t blocking a passageway.
Manley said police can tell people to move “if that person was too close to the travel portion of the roadway, and the officer determined that it was unsafe because we have far too many traffic fatalities in the city to begin with.”