AUSTIN (KXAN) — City leaders may vote to ban some homeless camps in Austin through a new plan to rehouse people living in what they call “dangerous and unhealthy areas.”

Councilmember Ann Kitchen has proposed the Housing-focused Homeless Encampment Assistance Link, or HEAL for short. If approved, the measure would call on city staff to identify four specific locations where people experiencing homelessness are camping in areas they consider unsafe because of their proximity to roads, pedestrian traffic or other “hazards.” According to the proposal itself, the intent would be to immediately house those individuals in safe shelter. Then, the goal remains to create a path to permanent housing for them and eventually eliminate the need for “unsheltered camping.”

“The bottom line is we need safe places for people to stay where they have the ability to get connected to permanent housing and services,” she told KXAN last week.

The proposal describes the four “priority locations” as:

  • “South Central Austin, at a major intersection under a state highway overpass”
  • “East Austin, on a sidewalk or public easement adjacent to or leading to a public library”
  • “Along a major arterial through the Central Business District”
  • “In Northwest Austin, at an intersection adjacent to significant vehicular and pedestrian traffic”

The proposal asks city staff to address the needs of the people living in these areas within six months of the measure being approved — designated as Phase 1 of the initiative. It also dedicates dedicates at least $3 million for this phase, before possibly expanding to other locations.

“It says we are, right away, going to get busy connecting those people to housing and services,” Kitchen explained.

That includes longer term-solutions and permanent supportive housing or even temporary solutions, like a room in one of the city’s prolodges.

A group called District 5 for Black Lives said they support connecting people experiencing homelessness with these resources but worry there aren’t enough of them to address everyone’s needs.

“If you remove that spot, and you don’t get into a hotel, where do you go? Into the woods?” organizer Isaac Cohen asked.

District 5 for Black Lives also opposes the second part of the HEAL plan: prohibiting camping in those four priority locations. They have started a petition against the measure.

“It allows for the recriminalization of homelessness in our city,” organizer Annie Daly-Lesch said.

She said their members are especially concerned about the impact on people of color experiencing homelessness.

Cohen added, “We do not believe that involving police officers more in their lives will actually improve the situation for the people.”

Kitchen told KXAN on Monday she and her co-sponsors for the initiative were still committed to decriminalizing homelessness, emphasizing the proposal directs city staff to come back with ideas on how to stop camping in those areas only after connecting the people staying there with “safe” options. Council Members Mackenzie Kelly, Leslie Pool, Sabino ‘Pio’ Renteria and Kathie Tovo are co-sponsoring the proposal.

  • For more information on HEAL from the council sponsors, click here.

During Tuesday’s work session, Kitchen announced the introduction of nine amendments. They included asking the city manager to return to council on March 4 with strategies and an implementation plan for disallowing camping after completion of HEAL initiative with strategies that do not allow for policing or citations. They’re also asking the city manager to provide documents on March 4 that dedicate at least $3 million for phase one of the HEAL initiative.

These co-sponsors praised the idea in a news release on Monday, noting the council and city staff have “learned from successful, ongoing efforts” focused on connecting veterans and youths experiencing homelessness to housing and other wrap-around support services.

“We built a successful system that addressed youth and veteran homelessness, and this can be a model for HEAL,” Council Member Renteria said. “That experience will make HEAL a success.”

Councilmember Natasha-Harper Madison said she was glad her colleagues on the council are thinking of creative solution, but she doesn’t want to move too fast. In fact, she said she has a lot of questions about this proposal and didn’t expect to get them all answered before the vote on Thursday.

“I want to make sure we are taking the time to fully vet any ideas we are bringing forward as potential solutions,” she said. “Homelessness is not something we can sweep under the rug, and closing our eyes to it doesn’t make it go away.”