AUSTIN (KXAN) — City-designated homeless campsites will require operational staff, 24/7 security personnel and social services, according to analysis released by City Manager Spencer Cronk Friday, as the city scrambles to address a public camping ban that took effect earlier in the week.

On May 6, Austin City Council approved a resolution directing Cronk to provide “a description of and budget for appropriate infrastructure at designated encampments” and to share a list of potential sites owned by the city, or partner organizations, that could fit the criteria by Friday, May 14.

“Temporary, designated camping spaces are one way we can help mitigate the persistent safety risks for our unsheltered neighbors,” council member Kathie Tovo, who sponsored the legislation, said last week. “This solution is not perfect — the ideal solution is more low-barrier and permanent supportive housing.”

The resolution empowered the city to engage Barbara Poppe, a national expert on homelessness policy, in the process for establishing city-sanctioned sites. In a 2020 report commissioned by the City of Austin, Poppe said the city’s approach lacked organization and a sole focus on housing-first strategies.

Poppe, and other national experts, caution against the use of sanctioned campsites as part of a homelessness strategy. In 2019, a report from the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development cautioned communities from using sanctioned encampments because “limited evidence suggests that sanctioned encampments help to reduce homelessness.”

“It is important to provide crisis response to people because homelessness is a crisis,” Poppe told KXAN last week. “But that doesn’t go far enough to resolve the actual crisis for the individual.”

The City of Austin announced Monday a four-phase plan to enforce the new camping ban, which starts with 30 days of community engagement and education.

On May 1, voters approved Proposition B, which made sitting, lying or camping on public property a Class-C misdemeanor in addition to adding restrictions on panhandling.

Criteria for designated homeless campsites

Encampments with a capacity of 50 would cost at least $1.3 million annually, according to a memo released by the city late Friday. An encampment capacity of 100 would cost at least $1.8 million a year. City staff noted these are known costs only, with total costs likely to be more than these amounts, especially with utility and relocation costs.

However, the city did not release specific locations Friday. Staff said potential land options for encampments would be discussed at city council’s May 18 work session.

Staff reviewed more than 70 city-owned properties in considering encampment locations, according to Friday’s memo. The memo said the initial round of site analysis has been completed using the following criteria:

  1. Minimum size: 2 acres to serve 50 people, or 4 acres for 100 people
  2. Access to water and electricity service (and/or cost to establish, if known)
  3. Existing lighting
  4. Terrain suitability
  5. Flood risk
  6. Wildfire risk
  7. Proximity to a fire hydrant
  8. Environmental sensitivity of land (i.e. habitat or preserve)
  9. Expansion capacity
  10. Availability for two-year temporary use
  11. Presence of shaded areas
  12. Access to public transportation
  13. Proximity to critical retail and services
  14. Proximity to schools
  15. Potential disruption to existing public services or development plans

Sanctioned campsites would be equipped with electricity and water service, restrooms, hygiene stations, showers, adequate lighting and perimeter fencing where appropriate, according to the memo.