AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin Resource Recovery officially began the cleanup of homeless encampments outside the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH) Monday morning.
Neches Street between Seventh Street and Eighth Street was temporarily closed as trash and abandoned belongings were moved to large dumpsters and a dump truck.
“They are starting the initial clearing around the ARCH which is one of the ordinance changes happening this morning,” said Greg McCormack, executive director of the nonprofit Front Steps. “We did an initial ask of everyone who was outside of the ARCH, allowing them to come in. Some people have taken them up on that, some have not.”
Specifically, McCormack said that around 20 people chose to take shelter inside the ARCH during the sweeps.
He added that the sweeps are happening both as a result of recent ordinance changes in the city as well as because APD has identified that it is unsafe to camp close to curbs.
“This is just overall enforcement of no sitting and lying, no camping around the ARCH,” he said, explaining that the expectation is that there will no longer be any tents or camping outside of the ARCH.
The Austin Police Department released a statement, saying the cleanup was a joint effort by the city of Austin, along with groups like Front Steps, Integral Care and ECHO.
“The Austin Police Department’s responsibility was to make sure everyone was safe and to gain compliance in moving while persons experiencing homelessness were provided resources. We did not make any arrests nor did we issue citations,” the statement said, in part.
City crews and workers with vests from Downtown Community Court swept up shoes, trash, and possessions into dumpsters. They also dismantled some tents that had been left behind, feeding them in to dump trucks.
McCormack added that everyone was warned that tents left outside the ARCH Monday would be taken by crews.
“It’s a difficult situation for everyone,” he said, noting this is the first time he’s seen encampments cleared out in the city of Austin.
However, once the cleanup wrapped up Monday, dozens of people put their belongings, including tents, back on the sidewalk.
Susan Peake, who sleeps in the Salvation Army’s Safe Sleep shelter at night and spends her time on the sidewalk across the street during the day, says she and others have gotten mixed messages from police.
“Stay, go, stay, go, you know, ‘We’re enforcing, we’re not, were enforcing, we’re not,’ so, I don’t know,” Peake said.
“They said when they came to clean up today that they would be having places to shelter people,” said Shannon Sorgman, who is also homeless. “They don’t have any. They lied. I don’t believe anything they say.”
McCormack explained that before this cleanup effort, the Guided Path effort around the ARCH began, in which service providers spoke with 99 people who are experiencing homelessness and of those 70 have received some type of service since then from ARCH, Caritas, Salvation Army, or other organizations.
McCormack says shelters opened up some additional beds for the Guided Path effort, but those spots have all since been filled.
As of Monday, McCormack said the ARCH is at capacity, with 200 people on its waiting list. The Salvation Army said its shelter options are also at capacity, with 108 single adults, 86 mothers and 169 children on its waitlist.
Further cleanup work is scheduled to return to the ARCH Tuesday morning.
In October, the City of Austin released details of their homeless encampment strategy known as “The Guided Path”, which was created to reduce camping outside of the ARCH.
In addition to the ARCH, cleanup efforts led by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) began clearing homeless encampments from beneath state overpasses.
TxDOT told KXAN last week that the governor has instructed the agency to continue these cleanups on a weekly basis “until further notice.” Gov. Abbott’s office added that these cleanups could happen more frequently than once a week, if need be.
People displaced by these cleanups are being directed by TxDOT to go to ARCH, Integral care and Salvation Army. As KXAN has reported, the operational shelters all three of these organizations have are already full. ARCH tells us Monday that they are at capacity with a waitlist of 200 people. Salvation Army tells us they are at capacity with a waitlist of 362 people in total.