AUSTIN (KXAN) — The City of Austin has a new structure when it comes to handling homeless encampments, launching a new Homeless Encampment Management Team.

A memo released Monday from the city manager’s office said the new team has a leadership team and three other sections: planning, operations and policy.

The leadership team is led by someone from the city’s homeless services department but also includes the Austin Police Department, Austin Fire Department, Parks and Recreation Department and Watershed Protection Department.

“If it’s an area of park land, but it presents an issue with potential fire, that really requires a more coordinated response,” said Kathie Tovo, city council member for district nine.

She said this plan makes sure all departments are working together on encampments throughout the city.

Fifteen stakeholder departments came together to generate ideas and develop recommendations.

There are two key recommendations that came out of the work:

  1. Implement a central response structure
  2. Develop and implement a citywide homeless encampment tracking and prioritization tool

Both recommendations allow the city to apply a citywide lens to encampment response, so that action is prioritized, and resources are deployed to encampments that present the highest risk to safety and health, the memo from the city said.

The planning section is responsible for keeping track of encampments across the city and using a new tool to prioritize them and create response plans. That includes coming up with a closure schedule for the encampments. The leadership team approves the priority list and closure schedules.

According to the memo, the team will pay attention to health and safety while also thinking about impacts to infrastructure, property, environmental health, and public access.

The operations team carries out camp cleanups and closure plans.

The policy team develops things like closure protocols and biohazard procedures. The leadership team will activate those policies.

So, what took so long to bring organization and structure to the city’s process on camps?

“I have urged the city manager [Spencer] Cronk to really respond differently to these issues now for the last several years,” Tovo said.

She believes the city hiring a homeless strategy officer was the “missing piece.”

“We needed that very focused, very capable staff to kind of help lead some of these efforts, because the… individuals in our other departments all have other responsibilities, too,” Tovo said. “So now, having that… designated focus of our homeless strategy officer and her staff have really helped move this forward.”

City-sanctioned encampments?

The release of this new plan comes about a week after some city council members asked to revisit the idea of sanctioned encampments.

“I really think that the city and the city council needs to address setting up sanctioned camping areas,” Councilmember Kathie Tovo said during budget discussions. Other members joined in.

“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 idea was floated last year but ultimately shut down.

The city’s chief homeless strategy officer, Dianna Grey, reminded council that the idea was dropped 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 also said 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 the operational cost was comparable to that of a shelter.

On Monday, Tovo said while the city is and should be focusing on creating more housing for people experiencing homelessness, sanctioned encampments in the meantime may be a good idea.

“It’s important, I think, to acknowledge that we have quite a few encampments,” she said. “They are not sanctioned. They are in areas sometimes that pose great risk to the individuals living there. And it might be a better path to be able to point people to city sanctioned encampments, where they could, say, get access to restrooms and water, and some of the other really basic necessities.”

She said the idea hasn’t moved forward again since she brought it up about a week ago and doesn’t plan to again unless she hears more support from her fellow city council members.