AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin’s Watershed Protection Department resumed cleaning up homeless encampments near creeks and stormwater channels Wednesday.
The city started with two sites on Riverside Drive. The Austin City Council approved a $250,000 contract in December for cleaning the areas, following a pilot program last year. It says the clean-up is important so Austin’s drainage infrastructure works like it’s supposed to and does not put the city at risk of flooding, erosion or water pollution.
In the 2019 pilot program, city crews did 37 cleanups in nine flood-prone spots where people sleep. Social workers went along to help the homeless people who were affected by those cleanups.
“Getting them plugged into social services was a big benefit,” said Watershed Protection Assistant Director Jose Guerrero. “We did get some individuals resolved in their personal situations, and we hope to have continuing benefits to improve capacity and speed in which they are housed.”
One of the spots the city will start with this week is the drainage tunnels underneath Riverside Drive at Willow Creek Drive, an area the Austin Police Department called a “violent crime hotspot” earlier this month due to criminals preying on the people living there.
That’s where Andrea Trejo has been living.
“Some people find somewhere to go and are lucky, and some aren’t,” she told KXAN Tuesday while she sat on a makeshift bed inside the tunnel. Trejo has been living on the street for 16 years and now shares the tunnel with 15-20 people each night, she said.
The city posted notices at the tunnel to give people living there 72 hours to remove anything they want to keep. The city will do the same at future cleanup sites around Austin.
Surrounded by her clothes and other belongings, she worried that the cleanup meant she’d lose most of it because she has nowhere else to put it.
“I’m tired of starting over,” she said, wiping away tears. “I’ve been doing this for years and years and years, and I’m tired.”
Risks to safety, drainage, water quality
The city says camping next to drainage ways isn’t safe due to the increased risk of flooding. Crews will focus on anything blocking water flow, including furniture, mattresses, shopping carts and other large items. “We are going to remove anything at a camp site that is a risk to blocking flow,” Guerrero said.
Plastic crates, an office chair and trash were visible farther down the tunnel on Tuesday. Crews will assess tents in flood-prone areas on a case-by-case basis to determine if they are blocking water flow.
There are also concerns about water quality, as well as safety for people like Trejo.
“In any given storm event, we don’t know how much rain is going to fall, we don’t know which creek is going to flood,” Guerrero said. “This is not an area to be in during a storm.”
Last May, a man died after he was swept down Shoal Creek in rising floodwaters; police said he was homeless and bathing in the creek. Staff members will talk with the people experiencing homelessness they encounter about the flood risks, they say.
A pilot program last year from March to September tested a standardized process for managing encampments on watershed protection land. During the pilot, the city conducted 37 cleanups across nine sites. Crews removed 27 tons of material, and it cost $61,000.
The funding for cleaning encampments follows a $63 million commitment by the Austin City Council this fiscal year to address homelessness.
Guerrero said the city learned from that pilot program that it needed to work to find ways to build relationships with people experiencing homelessness and foster long-term communication.
To that end, the department is partnering with agencies like Integral Care to connect folks they encounter with services and resources.
“We feel we have that process in place, and we will be evaluating it constantly over this coming year,” he said.
Integral Care also distributed green cloth bags to people living at the cleanup sites. The city said anything in those green bags won’t be thrown out, but that anything else left behind will be.
Trejo won’t be able to fit most of her clothes, shoes and other possessions in the bag she received, and she worries that means most of what she’s collected with be tossed.
‘No free option for them’
The city and community groups are working to come up with solutions to give people experiencing homelessness places to store their belongings.
There’s “no free option for them” right now, said Greg McCormack, executive director of Front Steps, the group that operates the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH).
Austin Resource Recovery gave the ARCH some new plastic recycling bins to convert into storage for the people staying there. That’s in addition to the 160 lockers at the shelter.
ARR hopes to expand the bin solution to more of the city. “There’s always a bigger need than what we have,” McCormack told KXAN.
Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department is experimenting with another possible solution for the folks its staff encounters: shipping containers. The department is considering ways to outfit the containers with lockers.
The city committed funding to a potential storage solution vendor in December, laying out up to $50,000 for a seven-month period starting in March.
That’s not soon enough for Trejo. She’s prepared to take what she can and leave the rest to the cleanup crews.
“God’s going to take care of me,” she said. “Honestly, I can start over again. I’ll start all over again. I’ve done it for years.”