TxDOT to clean Austin homeless camps Monday

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Texas Department of Transportation – at the direction of Governor Greg Abbott – will give move-out notices to people camping underneath state overpasses. Governor Abbott’s office confirmed to KXAN they will post paper notices at major encampments Tuesday before state workers clean out the locations next Monday, November 4th.

Many of the more than 2,000 people without homes in Austin camp underneath state highways operated by state transportation workers, including Interstate 35 and State highways 183, 290, and 71.

Staff for Governor Abbott said they would coordinate with homeless shelters when TxDOT cleans out underpass camps, directing people to Integral Care in Austin, Front Steps (which operates the ARCH), and the Salvation Army. The Tuesday posts will have phone numbers to call for information.

Crews will begin clearing out camps in six days, according to Gov. Abbott’s spokesman.

“Governor Abbott has been clear that unless the City of Austin demonstrated improvements to protect public health and safety, the state of Texas would step in to address this crisis,” said John Wittman, “With today’s notice from TxDOT, the Governor is following through on his promise.”

In addition to the short term direction to Integral Care, Salvation Army, and Front Steps, “The Office of the Governor is working with a coalition consisting of private sector and faith-based organizations on longer-term solutions,” said Wittman.

The Austin Chamber of Commerce will spearhead the effort to get long-term solutions, according to the Governor’s Office.

KXAN obtained a copy of the TxDOT flyer that will be posted at camps on Tuesday.

“Any items left behind will be considered abandoned and removed. Use the be safe and seen bags to take important items, such as documents and medications, with you. For bag information contact Integral care,” staff wrote on the notices. Bags will be kept and saved for 30 days according to the flyer.

The poster then details the service providers’ location and contact information.

This comes a day after Austin’s revised camping ordinance took effect, which banned camping, sitting, and lying on sidewalks and business entrances.

The city’s homeless strategy officer says they don’t expect major disruption because many under overpasses are already known and working with the city.

“I know that those teams are going to make sure that they know where those individuals may go and direct them to appropriate resources as they’re available, whether that’s a crisis bed or emergency shelter,” said Lori Pampilo Haris.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler and city council members learned about the governor’s decision to move in TxDOT crews. Adler says he is worried the action could scatter people too quickly.

“They might end up in a place where it is harder for us to find them, we know that at this point, we’re able to find people. Get them healthcare, caseworkers, help get them in homes in a way we can’t when they’re in dark places,” said Adler.

Adler says the city has made huge improvements when it comes to housing the city’s homeless. He says they’ve gotten about 400 people off the streets in the past two months.

Monday, Austin Police officers, city workers, and nonprofit outreach teams spent the day handing out flyers, notifying people of the changes and giving them phone numbers for resources.

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.

The city of Austin has been embroiled in a controversy over its homeless policy since June when Austin city council allowed people to sit, lie, camp, and panhandle in many public areas. In October, the council returned the bans to sidewalks and nearby businesses entrances. The backtrack came after pressure from Abbott, who set a Nov. 1 deadline to make significant changes.

Business community stepping in

For the longterm, Abbott’s office teamed with the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.

“We’re trying to be the neutral broker. Bring reasonable discussion to the table. Reasonable solutions. And actually trying to bring resources to the table,” said Mike Rollins, President of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. “I don’t think Government alone can solve it. And clearly, up until now, it has not happened.”

Chamber President Mike Rollins told KXAN Monday they’ll add their 2,200 businesses to the faith and non-profit community to come up with a longterm solution for people unsheltered in Austin. The details are still to come, he said, but the business community will no longer sit on the sidelines.

“We want to help own that problem. And we will put resources to the table. I say to date, we have not really been invited to that conversation,” said Rollins.

Over the next week, the Austin Chamber of Commerce will be announcing more of their community partners and also releasing more details about what their long term solutions will be.

Up until this point, many downtown business leaders have been large critics of the city of Austin’s policy allowing people to camp, sit, lie, and panhandle in many public places.

Since the council’s return of some of the camping ban, Governor Abbott and the city of Austin leaders have argued over Twitter about the prevalence of needles and feces in the city. Austin officials say there is no increase in the two in public. Abbott and his supporters say needles are more visible.

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