AUSTIN (KXAN) — It has now been one year since Texas Governor Greg Abbott gave his blessing for people experiencing homelessness to camp on a five-acre property off of a frontage road in Southeast Austin.
This camp is a visible vestige of the heated debate between the state and the City of Austin over how to best address homelessness. Regardless of the vitriol the camp was born out of, residents tell KXAN they are now starting to get more of the services they need and that they have a new vision for how they want the camp to be.
Over the past several months, residents, with some help from an Austin nonprofit, have voted on a new name for their home: Esperanza Community. The residents eagerly pointed out to KXAN that “esperanza” means hope in Spanish.
The camp sits on an L-shaped lot on land owned by the Texas Department of Transportation off of US Highway 183 near Montopolis Drive. At the front of the property, there are a few old vehicle bays that residents have claimed as homes, some picnic tables, and a wooden structure set up to offer privacy while using the outdoor shower.
Most of the residents have tents, tarps, and made-from-scratch abodes on the long stretch of asphalt that takes up most of the property. One resident has created a bike repair shop as well as a bit of lawn-art featuring a fake skeleton seated in front of a cymbal. Another resident had fashioned an ornate fence out of pieces of wood. A tattered American flag is stands hoisted high above one tarp, waving in the wind.
Austin nonprofit The Other Ones Foundation (TOOF) relocated its headquarters to the back of the lot in August. Since late June, TOOF has taken on the role of service coordinator at the encampment. In that time, TOOF has installed trailers with hot showers for residents, a resource center (which residents excitedly note has WiFi and TV), and caseworkers. The nonprofit, whose bread and butter is providing low-barrier work for people experiencing homelessness, says it has been able to employ 30 of the camp’s residents. TOOF has also tried to interview every resident and organize the different parties who have been bringing donations and services to the camp.
This campsite was first opened on Nov. 7, 2019 as a place where people experiencing homelessness could go while the state cleared out encampments beneath overpasses at a time when shelters in the city were full.
This unique encampment became a reality because Governor Abbott designated the state land. Abbott tasked state agencies with some aspects of operating the camp and those agencies remain involved today. The Texas Department of Public Safety said it is still working with state and local partners to provide security at the camp 24/7. The Texas Department of Emergency Management has been tasked by Governor Abbott with managing donations and meals at the camp.
TOOF said they’ve received lots of support from those state agencies. Based on the recent U.S. census count, TOOF believes there are around 150 people living at the encampment now. But with people coming and going, TOOF said they have no way of knowing exactly how many people live there.
Resident Erica Soto, 46, said she has lived at the camp since the governor first opened it. Soto explained that she is a born and raised Austinite who only began living on the streets in recent years after problems with an ex-boyfriend got her kicked out of her apartment.
“I was homeless, I didn’t have nowhere to go, my grandma wasn’t alive anymore, so I put my big girl panties on and came out to do what I had to do,” she said.
Soto said she likes having a state trooper on site at all times watching to keep the peace if anything gets out of hand.
However, Soto said the services she was told would be at the campsite — like caseworkers, help with doctor appointments, food stamp assistance — only just started happening at the camp this year.
“We are just now moving forward,” she said.
What’s in a name?
The campsite has been called a host of names over the past year, including Abbottsville, Camp Row, and most notably Camp RATT (which stood for Responsible Adult Transition Town).
“We didn’t like the name RATT because we’re not rats around here,” Soto said.
Soto and four other residents were elected this fall to the camp’s council (“it looks good on my resume” she said of her be position.) As she recalls, the council sat down together and collectively settled on the name “Esperanza.” At first, they wanted their home to be called Camp Esperanza, but they ultimately settled on Esperanza Community.
“We are trying to change it to Esperanza Community, not camp, there’s a difference,” Soto said. “We are helping people move up instead of saying in the same spot.”
At the weekly council meetings, Soto said she and her colleagues will discuss things such as how to handle the many dogs running around the campsite or how to help residents do their laundry more easily.
“Things that normal people take for granted,” she noted.
Soto has also secured a job cleaning the TOOF resource center, so she is able to earn money while working in the same place where she can also access the internet to work on her degree.
“I am here just for a short period of time, as soon as I get all my ducks in a row and my eggs hatch, then I’m gone,” Soto explained. “I see myself in a new environment, new place, new name, new everything. I am not going to be the same person you see standing right before you.”
How a nonprofit wound up coordinating services at the state homeless encampment
One year ago, TOOF did not plan to be located out of this state-designated campsite.
Max Moscoe, the community engagement coordinator for TOOF, explained that his nonprofit began doing outreach at the campsite in early 2020.
“There were plans for other groups to come out and provide services, but when COVID hit, all of that kind of ground to a halt,” Moscoe said, explaining that the need at the camp combined with an expiring lease on the nonprofit’s prior location made the decision easy.
But the camp itself exists at a crossroads of approaches to addressing homelessness. In 2019, the City of Austin explicitly advised against setting up designated campsites or parking lots for people experiencing homelessness. Instead, the city suggested that Austin’s homeless response should focus on Housing First: a strategy that aims to get people housed immediately and without barriers. While Housing First has been key to the federal response to homelessness since 2013, members of the Trump administration traveled to Austin in October to announce a plan to step back from Housing First.
Moscoe said of the state campsite, “if we had been running the show, we may have done some things slightly differently.”
“But the fact is that this is what was opened and the resource that was presented” he added gesturing to the campsite around him. “And we have been supported by the state and by TxDOT ever since we came out here.”
In July when TOOF was first getting settled at the camp, Moscoe described it a as “a borderline humanitarian crisis.”
KXAN asked Moscoe Thursday, does he feel the same way?
“No,” he replied. “I would say that what has changed is there are resources and people here that provide highly personalized services.”
Moscoe clarified that the conditions at the camp now are not perfect, but if a resident hits a “bump in the road” that is dangerous to their health, there is a team that can help or get that resident connected to the right professionals.
“That wasn’t necessarily the case before August when we got here, ” he added.
While Moscoe wasn’t involved in the discussion on the new name for the campsite, he said he is “quietly happy” Esperanza Community came out as the favorite.
“I do think [Esperanza Community] is showing a lot of promise as something that can grow into a really really powerful, transformative community.”Max Moscoe, Community Engagement Coordinator for The Other Ones Foundation
Next, TOOF hopes to bring in a kitchen and “washeteria” for residents. The nonprofit has an agreement with TxDOT to remain on site for the next year.
A sprung shelter plan deferred
In November of 2019, the governor’s office said this campsite would be a temporary solution until Austin coalition ATX Helps completed the sprung shelter it was intending to build.
Around that same time, ATX Helps had formed as a coalition of different groups in the community aiming to address homelessness, led by the Austin Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Austin Alliance. The group was fundraising to build a sprung shelter — a tent-like structure where hundreds of people could sleep.
In January, ATX Helps told KXAN it was hoping to have this shelter built by March. In February the group said it had selected the state-owned lot off of 183 as the site to build this sprung shelter. The Texas Transportation Commission unanimously agreed to lease the site to ATX Helps. At the time, ATX Helps was expecting to pay the state $1 per month for ten years to lease the site.
But a spokesperson for ATX Helps, citing “public health and safety reasons” told KXAN on July 10 that its goal of opening “a large, temporary shelter for people experiencing homelessness is not viable at this time. “
The spokesperson went on to say that as attention shifted to the COVID-19 response from early March onward, the lease negotiations with TxDOT for the campsite have “stalled.”
“Now, without the possibility of opening a shelter at this time, there is no immediate need to lease the TXDOT site at 183 in Montopolis,” the spokesperson said back in July, noting that the ATX Helps board would meet again in 90 days “with a focus on storage and family reunification.”
Initially, ATX Helps set out to raise $14 million for their effort. As of July 13, a spokesperson said the coalition had raised around $1.5 million through a combination of donations and pledges.
According to the July statements from ATX Helps, its board should have met at some point in October. KXAN is waiting to hear from ATX Helps about what happened at that follow-up board meeting, what will happen with the funds ATX Helps raised, and whether ATX Helps has future interest in leasing the plot of land off of US 183.