AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin City Council members are once again floating the idea of sanctioned encampments — a place where people experiencing homelessness can go to safely camp and get resources — despite the city all but squashing the concept last year.
The conversation came up during a budget discussion involving the city’s homeless strategy division. The city’s budget is due next week.
“I really think that the city and the city council needs to address setting up sanctioned camping areas,” Councilmember Kathie Tovo said. She was first to bring it up, but other members piled on.
“It’s hard to imagine that at some point there’s not going to be — even if we build a lot of housing — a residual population of folks, or that at least kind of cycle in and out of homelessness, and I would rather have them in a primitive but safe campsite, public campsite than in the woods, behind the park,” said Councilmember José “Chito” Vela.
The city’s chief homeless strategy officer, Dianna Grey, reminded council that this idea was dropped last year after the city researched options, narrowed down city-owned locations, and found the process would be lengthy, expensive and difficult.
“Sometimes when we think ‘let’s have sanctioned encampments’ the sense is if we had one sanctioned encampment in each district, we would still need to accommodate 250 people in each of those to accommodate the unsheltered population. That’s a very large site with not insignificant cost,” Grey said.
She noted finding a location for a sanctioned encampment was more difficult than finding a location for a homeless shelter — down to issues with the city’s own zoning — and that the operational cost was comparable to that of a shelter.
“It’s not a hard no,” Grey summed it up, but also said it would not be a quick or inexpensive solution.
“I think there is a lot of fear for folks that see open, vacant land and are probably imagining that one day there could be something sprung on them,” Councilmember Paige Ellis said.
It could be brought up again next week, among a flood of other city council-desired initiatives, during the budget finalization process. If it were to progress past the concept phase, a city council member would need to put it on a future agenda.
HEAL initiative progress
As of the beginning of the month, there have been 276 public camping citations issued for people who have violated the state and city’s camping ban since they went into place less than two years ago, according to an update from the homeless strategy division of Austin Public Health.
Meanwhile, nine encampments have been closed, one is in the process of being closed and more than 300 people have been moved to a shelter as a part of the city’s HEAL initiative, the report showed.
“Relocation to shelter of Austin’s most populous encampment began in mid-July and is ongoing,” the report said.
During Wednesday’s budget discussion, council members asked the city not to forget about the spaces left behind after an encampment is cleared out. Several mentioned HEAL initiative-cleaned areas where people experiencing homelessness have returned.