AUSTIN (KXAN) — The same day the City of Austin closed its cold weather shelters, some people experiencing homelessness watched their belongings get bulldozed into piles and sent off in dumpsters.

What appeared to be state officials cleared the camp on Ben White Boulevard, under the highway near South Lamar Tuesday.

A woman named Virginia, who is wheelchair-bound, watched in tears as crews tossed what she and her husband, Don, couldn’t carry across the street. The two spent the night before huddled in a green tent as temperatures again plummeted below freezing.

“I’m tired of having to pack up everything and move across the street and then move back across,” Virginia said. The couple said they’re on a waiting list for permanent supportive housing because of Virginia’s disabilities.

The Texas Department of Transportation, at first, pointed to the City of Austin for the cleanups, but a spokesperson later confirmed TxDOT personnel conducted a cleanup in the area on Tuesday in the below statement:

“A cleanup did occur at Packsaddle and Ben White on Tuesday. TxDOT crews typically perform cleanups on Tuesdays. When crews arrive, individuals experiencing homelessness are given the opportunity to remove all of their personal belongings before the cleanup occurs. What is abandoned and left behind is what is cleaned up. All of the locations where state cleanups occur are posted with signs that say:

Prohibited
Camping on Public Property
State Law

TxDOT has spent roughly $350,000 over the past six months supplementing the city in clearing out camps, it said.

When asked about the cleanup, a City of Austin spokesperson said, “No City of Austin encampment clean-ups were scheduled or conducted by COA for the period from December 19 – 27th and none are scheduled for the remainder of the year. City staff were not involved in cleanup efforts at Ben White/Victory Drive.”

Outreach groups said regardless of who made the call, it shouldn’t have happened, especially not this week. In the case of the Ben White camp, people who accepted shelter Monday night would have come back Tuesday morning to find their things gone.

Sasha Rose, director of Austin Mutual Aid, called the move a “slap in the face” for outreach groups who spent the cold snap working tirelessly to pass out cold-weather gear.

A homeless camp near Ben White Boulevard and Victory Drive was cleared out Tuesday, the same day the City of Austin closed its cold weather shelters. (KXAN photo/Mariano Garza)
A homeless camp near Ben White Boulevard and Victory Drive was cleared out Tuesday, the same day the City of Austin closed its cold weather shelters. (KXAN photo/Mariano Garza)

“People’s lives were saved — and fingers and toes were saved — because of clothing and gloves and socks provided by this collaborative and this initiative. I’m just going to call it what it is. It’s thievery,” Rose said.

For the people at that camp, the sweeps don’t keep them from living under the overpasses. After crews left the Ben White location, the tents almost immediately went back up. Virginia said they need somewhere else to go if they were not allowed to be there.

“We are not a lower life form. We are human beings just like you. You’re one paycheck away from being me. I used to be a home health care provider. Look at me now,” she said.