AUSTIN (KXAN) — As an ongoing political fight continues over how to best address homelessness in the city of Austin, state agencies will begin cleaning out homeless encampments from beneath state overpasses Monday Nov. 4 at the direction of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
The cleanup efforts will be led by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) based on instructions from Gov. Abbott.
Sources previously told KXAN that the cleanups will start at 8 a.m. at US 183 and Burnet Road, then go to I-35 at Cesar Chavez Street, then go to Manchaca Road and US 290.
However, Governor Abbott’s Office says that’s no longer the case and that “everything is fluid as far as locations go.” TxDOT echoed that.
“As you are aware, this is a fluid situation with many moving parts,” said Diann Hodges, a TxDOT spokesperson, on Sunday evening. “We are revising our schedule and will not be starting at 8 a.m. at US 183 and Burnet Road, though we still plan to begin the cleanup on Monday. “
TxDOT has not indicated where it will now start cleanup efforts.
TxDOT told KXAN last week that the governor has instructed them 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.
TxDOT says it is not asking people to move permanently, but they must move while the underpasses are cleaned.
TxDOT says they plan to hold onto personal items collected during these cleanups for 30 days. That would include things like cell phones, backpacks and tents, but would not include things like mattresses, which would be thrown away for health reasons.
TxDOT posted fliers beneath overpasses, directing people who live under them to go to Austin’s Resource Center for the Homeless, Integral Care, and the Salvation Army. As KXAN reported, all of the open shelters that belong to these three organizations are full. As of Sunday afternoon, it remains unclear where people displaced by the cleanup efforts will be asked to go.
“This is Gov. Abbott following through on his promise to deal with this issue. He gave the City of Austin more than a month to clean up their act and unfortunately they’ve dragged their feet,” said John Wittman, a spokesperson for the governor.
Gov. Abbott told city leaders in early October that if they did not, “demonstrate consequential improvement in the Austin homelessness crisis” by Nov. 1, that he would direct state agencies to take action.
Wittman added that the state’s efforts will “hopefully help clean up the city of Austin and will also hopefully help the homeless.”
Chris Baker, the executive director of The Other Ones Foundation, a program that pays people experiencing homelessness in Austin $15 per hour to pick up trash and remove graffiti, told KXAN that his organization was asked if it would be able to help with encampment cleanups.
Initially, Baker said his organization agreed to help.
“But as it kind of unfolded how this particular cleanup was going to go down, we ultimately determined it wasn’t really an appropriate thing for us to be doing,” Baker said. “When we go into encampments, we are never asking anyone to move, we are just getting rid of trash.”
Instead, Baker said his organization is trying to help people experiencing homelessness prepare for the TxDOT cleanups.
In the encampments
KXAN visited with residents in an encampment beneath I-35 and Cesar Chavez Sunday evening. Most residents had heard about the imminent cleanups and some had already begun moving their possessions across the street.
One man who lives in a tent there, Raymond Thompson, had put on gloves and was picking up trash around the encampment site. Sunday, he had already worked nine hours but was planning to work at least four more. He had been working the two previous weeks, picking up at his encampment as well as under nearby bridges.
No one had assigned Thompson to do this; he wasn’t doing it for any organization. He says he suffers from Post Traumatic Stress and that cleaning helps to put his mind at ease. Plus, he hopes Gov. Abbott and state agencies notice his efforts.
“Well I’m pretty sure they’re going to see a big difference, a big change,” Thompson said, surveying the area he’d picked up.
Thompson hopes the governor offers jobs to him and his neighbors at the encampment.
“We could work together, that we could get something going, we could get a workshop going where the homeless people could give back to the community, too,” he said. “We can do this work ourselves, we can go around and do parks, we can do bridges, we can do buildings, we can work anywhere. All you got do do is assign us to detail or instructors.”
“Come to this place, you get housed you get food, clothes, you get a job, who wouldn’t want that?” Thompson said.
He doesn’t understand why an old building couldn’t be used in Austin to provide shelter for people like him as they get on their feet.
“You got too many rich people here in Austin, Texas, for them to say they have a problem with the homeless,” Thompson said. “Too many people that are educated and smart that could build all kinds of workshops and something that could help us get fitted back to society.”
As someone who pays taxes, Thompson felt he had a right to sleep under the bridge as long as he kept it clean.
“You can’t just push all into the river and be done with us,” he continued. “So how you going to deal with us?”
What will he do if state agencies tell him to leave his encampment?
“I’m going to follow the rules. If they say move, I’m going to move,” he said. “But I will be back because I ain’t got nowhere to go. Austin’s my home. I was born and raised here.”
In the encampments, another man didn’t want to be identified but wept at the prospect of being asked to leave his temporary community.
Yet another man who calls himself “Black H.” told KXAN he “has no idea” where he will go if state agencies ask him to leave. Black H. lives in a tent with his girlfriend. They have lights and storage affixed to it. Their dog Prince sleeps in his own tent outside.
Black H. has lived beneath I-35 for almost three years. He has lived in a tent for about one year — before Austin City Council first moved to repeal the camping ban in June. He says he’s been ticketed multiple times by Austin Police for minor infractions and expects more of the same in the future.
“I’m just going to have to follow somebody else [if the state cleans out the encampment], but nine times out of ten they going to be giving me a ticket, or locking me up — one or the other,” he said.
He and his girlfriend have been trying to get into long-term housing but haven’t had luck yet. They don’t want to stay in a shelter because they couldn’t stay with their dog and they’d have to be separated.
The stress of not knowing where he will go next gives Black H. anxiety attacks.
“It’s crap,” he said. “They are playing with our freedom, they are playing with our lives, they are playing with our lives, they are starting something they can’t finish.”
What led to this cleanup effort
This all comes as Austin continues to wrestle with how to address homelessness in the city. Austin’s current council has made addressing homelessness its top priority and in recent years city leaders have tried different strategies to get more people out of homelessness and connected to services.
Council moved to reverse a ban on camping, sitting, and lying down in public places in June in an effort to decriminalize homelessness. A heated debate ensued afterward over this policy which most directly impacts those experiencing homelessness in the city.
Council ultimately moved to put some, but not all, of the restrictions back in place on camping, sitting and lying down in public.
Those restrictions went into effect on Oct. 28. The new homelessness ordinance stops the city from enforcing the camping rules unless staff identifies each person camping illegally and has given them an opportunity to take advantage of housing services.
APD officials say once officers begin clearing out the area around the ARCH, they will strive to work with the homeless on voluntary compliance. However, if people don’t comply, they can be cited or even arrested.
Since the camping ban was repealed in June, city officials have acknowledged that people experiencing homelessness have become more visible as many have acquired tents and erected them in public spaces. Despite claims to the contrary on social media, public health officials in Austin say they are not seeing an increase of needles or feces in the city as a result of these policies.
According to Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition’s 2019 Point in Time Count Numbers, there are 2,255 people experiencing homelessness in Austin on any given night. Since 2010, that number has stayed in the range of 1,832 to 2,362 people. The number of unsheltered people experiencing homelessness in 2019 is 1,086 — the highest it has been in the last ten years.