Austin trying to find the best way to clean up homeless camps

Austin
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AUSTIN (KXAN) — The city of Austin will take over the responsibility of cleaning homeless camps under Texas Department of Transportation owned bridges and overpasses.

A city memo says for a long time, TxDOT has covered the nearly $400,000 a year camp cleanup costs involving state-owned highways. However, the city was told in December that because of expenses related to flooding in the fall, TxDOT is eliminating services not included in its municipal maintenance agreement with the city of Austin, and that includes the encampment cleanups.

According to a TxDOT spokeswoman, the agency began paying to clean up homeless camps in Austin years ago so its employees would be safe during bridge inspections. But, transportation officials say as Austin’s homeless population has grown and dozens of the camps require monthly cleanups, it’s become more of a local issue that needs attention.

TxDOT says Austin is the only city in Texas that hasn’t already been paying to clean up under its state-owned bridges. TxDOT will still maintain landscaping around these areas and do periodic litter pick-up, but any cleaning of homeless camps or removal of illegal dumping will fall on the city.

“This cost will come out of the budget for Public Works, which affects infrastructural improvements, including things like sidewalks and repairs,” said District One city council member Natasha Harper-Madison.

Harper-Madison says she hopes the hit to the city’s pocketbook will serve as a push as council prepares to meet in a couple of weeks to discuss adding the contractor’s cost to the budget.

“My hope is that as city leaders, this will really give us the opportunity to put our heads together around more robust efforts to address homelessness,” she said.

Both Harper-Madison and Council Member Ann Kitchen say their districts receive a lot of complaints about homeless camps and requests to clean them more frequently, particularly camps like in areas like US-183 and Cameron Road and Ben White Boulevard and Manchaca Road.

Both council members say they feel the answer is more housing for the homeless. But, until that’s a reality, the department footing the bill has its hands tied. Homeless camps pose health and safety hazards.

“This is really a treating the symptom of the problem, and, as we move forward and start enacting more long-term solutions, we’ll continue to secure the public safety and sanitation of our city,” said Austin Public Works Director Richard Mendoza.

Austin city council will decide on March 28th whether to approve spending to continue the contract in place that was covered by TxDOT for the cleanups. That contract is with a group called WorkQuest. Currently, the contractor does monthly cleanups at about 61 highway underpass locations in Austin.

To extend that contract through the end of Fiscal Year 2019, the city would have to pay $195,000. The contract would cost $386,762 per full year.

All eyes on one city department’s pilot program that’s aiming for a better way to clean up encampments

As Public Works puts together a plan to handle the cleanups, the department is looking to another city department’s current approach at keeping encampments from causing problems. 

City leaders say across Austin, homeless camps in watersheds have become an issue, polluting waterways.

Austin Watershed Protection Department Managing Engineer Ramesh Swaminathan says trash, belongings and even human waste from the camps gets into the streams that run through many camps.

“The water quality impact is rather significant,” Swaminathan said, adding that along with pollutants, E. coli can become a concern.

He says camping in culverts also isn’t safe for the people living in them.

“It’s a danger for them; it’s a danger for people upstream because this could cause flooding,” he said.

Swaminathan is managing the Watershed Protection Department’s six-month pilot program that aims to clean up debris in watersheds while helping people relocate to safer spots.

The program’s starting with nine problem areas across town. For the next six months, the city will give people who live in those spots notice, then clear out their camps, regularly going back and making sure that the watersheds are staying clean.

Swaminathan says in some cases, Watershed Protection and the company with which it is contracting plan to work with people in spots that aren’t dangerous, educating them to leave no trace and potentially providing regular trash pick-up services.

However, in the places people must vacate, crews are cleaning up thousands of pounds of trash while bringing along service providers from Integral Care to help connect the homeless with resources and housing.

“The reason they come back is because they don’t have anywhere else to go,” Swaminathan said, “So we are looking at a lot of options. One is providing the services, so that the services help build trust and we can help them self-resolve.”

APD is also helping with the pilot program. Officers say they expect it to be more effective than cleanups in the past because they’re not focusing on ticketing people for camping. The goal is to make the move easier on people and give them a hand up.

The pilot is experimenting with giving people more notice about the cleanups. In cases where people are living somewhere that’s dangerous, the Watershed Protection Department will give them at least 72 hours notice to pack up their belongings. In less urgent spots, WPD is giving them as much as 30 days notice.

The 30 days notice idea is modeled after an initiative in San Francisco. The Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco says the 30 day timeline allows homeless resource teams the time to come in and help people find more permanent housing before they’re displaced. In Austin, Integral Care is at every clean up, and the nonprofit’s spokeswoman says that extra time will allow advocates to help with emotional and behavioral health issues.

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