No deadline set to end weekly state cleanups of Austin homeless encampments

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A photo of DPS troopers at homeless encampments beneath state overpasses in Austin on December 16. Photo Courtesy Stop the Sweeps Austin Facebook Page.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — At the direction of Texas Governor Greg Abbott, cleanups of homeless encampments beneath state overpasses in Austin have continued since November 4.

John Wittman, a spokesperson for Governor Abbott, told KXAN Monday that there is no deadline set for when these cleanups will stop and that the cleanups will continue “as long as necessary.”

These cleanups have been conducted each week since early November, explained Diann Hodges, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) who is leading these efforts based on the governor’s instructions.

After Austin City Council moved to reverse a ban on camping, sitting, and lying down in most public places in June, Governor Abbott has been vocal about his opposition to these changes. 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. 

Governor Abbott issued an ultimatum to the city of Austin in early October, telling the city that if it did not “demonstrate consequential improvement” in addressing homelessness by November, he would summon state agencies to intervene.

TxDOT explained to KXAN that since the cleanups have started, any personal items they collect during cleaning are kept in a pod at the TxDOT district headquarters for 30 days.

KXAN spoke with someone who has been watching those cleanups intently. This person wanted to be identified as “Scott.” He chose to conceal his identity because of “various, usually right-wing hater groups” who he believes are “victimizing homeless people.”

Scott is part of a group called Stop the Sweeps Austin, a network that is pushing back against the displacement of people who sleep on the streets. The group appears to be aligned with similar movements in California and Washington.

Stop the Sweeps Austin has been monitoring TxDOT’s cleanup efforts as well as City of Austin clean up efforts that impact people experiencing homelessness. The city has different types of cleaning efforts than the state does which can depend on the different departments involved. For example, the Downtown Austin Community Court confirmed that on Saturday they worked with Austin Resource Recovery at the request of Urban Forestry to remove abandoned items in the area near a homeless encampment along East Riverside Drive and Pleasant Valley.

As for the state’s cleanup efforts, Scott says those usually start early in the morning at around 8 a.m. on Mondays.

Scott met KXAN at the encampment beneath TX-290 at Packsaddle Pass in South Austin. Stop the Sweeps was expecting the see TxDOT crews clearing people out there as they had been the previous Mondays, Scott said. However, as of the time of this article, it does not appear that TxDOT conducted clean up efforts there Monday.

Scott told KXAN that their team has seen TxDOT giving people in the encampments less and less notice that they will need to leave with each subsequent cleanup.

When asked about this, TxDOT spokesperson Diann Hodges told KXAN that the department typically gives 72 hours notice before a cleanup, “but now that the cleanups are happening weekly, it should come as no surprise that we are conducting cleanups.”

“They can expect the cleanup to occur every week,” Hodges said.

Homeless encampments beneath TX-290 at Packsaddle Pass in South Austin. KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard.

From what Scott has seen, some people in these encampments set up their tents beneath the overpasses again as soon as TxDOT leaves, others go into hiding elsewhere.

“At some locations, the population has remained relatively stable, at others we’ve seen a major drop as people go into hiding,” he said.

Since the time 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.

Scott said that he has witnessed people in these encampments beneath overpasses darting across access roads, carrying their tents after they’ve been dispersed by state cleanup crews

“It’s just a very stressful event and it’s incurred mainly on people living outside who are largely disabled, and we think its a very cruel thing to do to people in the first place, but also just adds an immensely physical task on people who are outside already really suffering,” Scott said.

Also present at the encampment Monday was Julian Reyes who identifies himself as chronically homeless. Reyes said that the anxiety tied to these cleanups has had physical impacts on people experiencing homelessness in the area.

“They don’t really have a solution at all, they have zero solutions,” Reyes said of the government entities conducting the cleanups.

Monday while KXAN spoke with Reyes, people were helping to pack up the belongings of a man who lived at that encampment who had died the day before. Reyes said that man died of a heart attack, Austin Travis County EMS confirmed that a man was found dead there Sunday evening though they could not confirm how the man died.

Reyes brought up the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last week not to hear a case about homeless encampments that originated in Boise, Idaho. The ruling from the high court means the original ruling from the lower court (U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit) stands: Boise can’t criminalize homeless people sleeping on the streets when no alternative shelter is available.

While that ruling isn’t binding for Texas who is in the 5th Circuit, an attorney KXAN spoke with last week said she believes the ruling could impact how judges might rule on a similar case in Texas.

In a 2017 audit, Austin’s city auditor cautioned city government officials about the ban on camping, sitting, and lying down in public in place at that time, saying those policies could make Austin the target of lawsuits over potential violations of constitutional rights.

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