AUSTIN (KXAN) — An area near a homeless encampment in Windsor Park received a great deal of attention this week after a video made by a man who lives in a nearby home was shared widely online.
While the video seemed to fuel yet another polarizing flash point in the ongoing debate in Austin on how best to address homelessness, the situation at that Windsor Park creek bed — like homelessness itself — is complex and nuanced. Thursday, KXAN learned people experiencing homelessness in Austin are now on the front lines of the effort to clean up that creek bed and to help to offer a solution to managing trash in the area.
Local nonprofit The Other Ones Foundation (TOOF) offers low-barrier employment for people experiencing homelessness and also has existing contracts with the City of Austin. Monday, the city reached out to TOOF, and since Tuesday the nonprofit has been at the creek bed, hauling out bags of trash. So far, the crew of 18 people experiencing homelessness have hauled around 3,000 pounds of trash from that location, TOOF said.
One member of the crew, Juan, said that while his usual work of plumbing had dried up, work offered through TOOF gives him a chance to make money for the time being.
Another member of the crew, Curtis, said this was the most trash in one location he’d seen in Austin. Styrofoam is the hardest to pick out of the creek bed, he explained, because it crumbles into little pieces. Curtis, who has lived on the streets in several places around Austin, said he takes pride in doing this work to make areas a little cleaner.
Max Moscoe, the community engagement coordinator for TOOF, explained many of TOOF crew members feel a similar level of pride in the work they do.
“People want to work, people want to give back to their community, I think it’s safe to say for most people whether or not they are living in a house,” Moscoe said. “There’s a lot of people out here who don’t have the opportunity to work and want that opportunity, and there’s a lot of trash in our parks.”
The only conditions people must meet to work with TOOF are they must be at least 18 years old, and they must be experiencing homelessness. Requirements for other jobs such as having a mailing address, an ID or the right clothing are not prerequisites to work for TOOF.
“We meet people where they’re at and whether or not they have any of those things,” Moscoe said.
The debate over addressing homelessness in Austin, whether over comments on social media or during public comment at council meetings, often feature arguments with concerns over trash and the visible spread of encampments, as well as arguments about systemic inequities — such as lack of affordable housing and lack of accessible mental health support — that can lead people to fall into homelessness.
“For people who are upset about inequalities in our city, and people who are upset about trash in our city, we are solving both problems,” Moscoe summarized.
Earlier this week, Austin’s Watershed Protection Department explained to KXAN that the city last had this encampment area cleaned March 6. After that, a previous contractor withdrew due to COVID-19 concerns. At that time, the department’s cleanups at homeless encampments “came to a halt,” the city said.
Thursday, the city explained, that through TOOF’s existing contract with the parks department, the city requested help from the nonprofit, and “we were able to begin cleaning the homeless encampment in Tannehill Branch Creek in the Windsor Park neighborhood.”
“The beauty of a public-private partnership like the city has with TOOF is that we don’t have red tape, so we spoke on Monday, we were out here cleaning on Tuesday,” explained Moscoe.
Moscoe said the crews will likely continue their work through the end of this week or early next week.
In addition to the work with TOOF, the city says it is partnering with other organizations to connect the people camping in the creek bed with housing options and job services. Because this area is “deep within the floodplain,” the city is encouraging people camped there to relocate. While the city is not forcing people living in the creek bed to leave, WPD said “that remains an option in the future.”
Right now though, the city believes forcing people experiencing homelessness to move from encampments could have public health repercussions.
“As part of the City of Austin’s pandemic response, and in close consultation with health officials and CDC guidelines, the City determined it is best to temporarily implement a general moratorium on moving encampments,” a WPD spokesperson said in an email. “Displacing individuals could increase the probability of community spread while also disconnecting them from needed services.”
WPD said it still plans to ask Austin’s council on September 3 for approval of a $147,000 contract (the remaining amount of their previous cleanup contract) to continue cleanup efforts at encampments.
All of this comes on a week when a petition to reinstate a ban on camping in Austin did not meet the threshold of valid signatures to get on the November ballot, (though the group behind the petition says they’re not done fighting) and a week when consultants advised the city to do more trash cleanups of public spaces without asking people to move from encampments.
Kevin Ludlow, the Windsor Park neighbor who made the YouTube video that garnered all the attention and at least 50,000 views said he thinks it’s great that TOOF crews are out in the creek bed helping with cleanups. Ludlow said he was impressed with how many trash bags the crew was able to collect so far. He’s also aware of other groups in the community who are interested in doing cleanups at the creek bed.
However, Ludlow said he worries about what the long-term solution will be, both to address the trash buildup and to address the needs of those experiencing homelessness there.
Ludlow doesn’t claim to have the answers, but he knows that he does not want to see the city simply “kicking the can down the road.”
He is concerned spending taxpayer dollars for a one-time cleanup will not address the trash buildup in the area in the long term. He also worries if money isn’t spent properly and immediately to address the underlying issues of people facing homelessness, taxpayers will wind up paying more money in the long run addressing those unmet needs.
“I ran as a Libertarian for the Texas House three times, the last thing I want to be doing is wasting taxpayer money,” Ludlow explained.
He also is concerned that asking people to leave their encampments will just force those people to camp in another part of the city.
“Which is why we haven’t called the police routinely over last seven months — it’s because we don’t want to kick the can down the road,” Ludlow said of the efforts he and his neighbors have been taking. “We haven’t been trying to just kick people out, and we have a few people who’ve become friends with us, they are quiet and don’t cause problems.”
Ludlow said he is hopeful he and his neighbors can do more in the near future to help out some of the people in the encampment who they’ve connected with.
Back at the creek bed in the hot Texas sun, Moscoe explained the TOOF crew works earlier in the day and supplies water to workers to protect against the hot weather. TOOF also supplies masks, hand sanitizer and has crews socially distance while working to protect against COVID-19.
Moscoe said in his work through this nonprofit, he’s learned “people living in houses have professional trash services that come to them on a weekly basis and take their trash away, people who don’t live in houses don’t have that aside from us.”
He also noted, “people who live in houses have storage facilities and refrigerators, where they are able to buy in bulk and buy things to save for later.”
“When you don’t have a house, everything is single-serve, wrapped in plastic, so that part of the lifestyle leaves you with no choice but to have more trash,” Moscoe explained.
TOOF was aware of Ludlow’s video, but Moscoe said, “we aren’t interested in politics or any of that, we have a solution that we know works, it cleans the city, it offers employment opportunities, and it builds community with people who want to find that again.”
He has a lot of confidence that cleanups, such as the one going on now near the creek in Windsor Park, will help to address homelessness in Austin in more ways than meets the eye.
“If people want to be involved in a solution, getting involved with us is how they can step up and be a part of that,” Moscoe said.