Think Austin’s homeless problem is getting worse? Service providers say things are actually better

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Driving through Austin during the pandemic, you might notice some homeless camps look like they’re growing, or that there are more tents popping up.

On Thursday, Austin Public Health will provide an update to the city on its efforts to provide affordable housing, as its focus has shifted toward a different public health crisis– combating COVID-19.

Kevin Ludlow, who lives in the Windsor Park neighborhood in east Austin, says he’s watched the large homeless encampment behind his home grow worse as the pandemic stretches on.

He spoke with KXAN about the issue in early August, shortly before the city’s Watershed Protection Department directed a cleanup there.

Ludlow says just days after the cleanup, the encampment was back to the way it had looked before. Now, he says it’s even worse — with crime and drugs.

“There’s dozens and dozens and dozens of needles that you come across,” Ludlow said.

The homeowner says he sometimes cleans parts of the encampment himself, with a rake. He says he and other neighbors have also spent extra money to try to provide some sense of security as they worry about property crimes.

“I’ve got these ridiculous floodlights that are in the far back of my backyard now that light up the entire creek behind my house,” he said. “Most of us have cameras, you know, just things like that. They don’t necessarily stop things, but they at least help us to be more aware when they’re happening. You know, these are real costs that we’re incurring.”

Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, or ECHO, says homelessness actually has not increased during the pandemic in Austin, even though it might look like it has.

ECHO’s Housing for Health Systems Manager Niki Kozak has observed that there aren’t as many cleanups going on due to the pandemic. She also says people may notice more tents popping up across town because advocates have been giving more out.

“So that they can better social distance and self isolate and try to follow CDC guidelines as best as they can without having a home to live in,” Kozak explained

Kozak says ironically, COVID-19 has strengthened Austin’s response to homelessness with collaborative new programs like the “EAT Initiative, which delivers 2,000 paper bags of food weekly to people living on the streets.

She says the pro lodges housing people at high risk of infection during the pandemic have also helped some in need of immediate shelter.

In addition, Kozak says many non-profits have gotten extra funding from the CARES Act as a result of the pandemic.

“And we are working together to turn those dollars into a real housing programs,” she says.

Ludlow says he supports those programs but wants them paired with more action in his neighborhood.

“There just has to be some basic level of enforcement,” he said.

The city’s Watershed Protection Department says it has plans for another cleanup in Ludlow’s neighborhood in the next couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, KXAN got an up on ATX Help’s plan for a large Sprung Shelter. That was supposed to go up on the state’s encampment site in East Austin, in an effort led by the Austin Chamber of Commerce.

Fundraising for the shelter, however, is still far short of the $14 million goal, with only $1.4 million raised, so far. The Chamber of Commerce says its coalition’s board is currently working on a plan for next steps when it comes to spending the money it has raised.

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