AUSTIN (KXAN) — As the Texas Department of Transportation — at the direction of Governor Greg Abbott — moves to clean out homeless camps beneath state overpasses in Austin, the department is posting fliers directing people camped there to go instead to Integral Care, Salvation Army or Front Steps/ Austin’s Resource Center for the Homeless.
The problem is, all three of those local organizations say their shelter space is at capacity and they don’t have room to take in more people.
Governor Abbott’s office announced Tuesday that TxDOT would begin posting notices directing people to leave camps beneath overpasses before state workers clean out those spots Monday, November 4.
Update as of November 1: “At the direction of the Governor, TxDOT has been instructed to continue cleanups on a weekly basis until further notice” says TxDOT spokesperson Diann Hodges.
Shelters at capacity
“Right now the Salvation Army is operating at a full capacity at both of our shelters — the downtown shelter and the Austin Shelter for Women and Children — we’re at full capacity,” said Cory Leith, Communications Director for Salvation Army. Leith expects that this increase in capacity is due in part to “what’s been happening in the city,” but he also said that during a change of seasons Salvation Army will often see more people trying to get a place in the shelter.
Currently, there are 406 people on the waitlist to get into the Salvation Army’s shelters. Those include 106 single adults and 95 mothers with 205 children. The downtown Salvation Army Shelter which is at capacity has 242 beds and the Austin Shelter for Women and Children which is also at capacity has 81 beds.
The Salvation Army does have another shelter space: the newly constructed Rathgaber Center in East Austin which has 212 shelter beds for families. Leith explained that the City of Austin recently approved a contract for the Rathgaber Center which went into effect October 1. Consequently, the Salvation Army has recently started to find employees for that shelter, but they say even with the city funding, they won’t have enough money to actually operate the shelter. Salvation Army is asking for donations to to help them open this shelter space and is applying for grants that could help as well.
Typically, Leith said, if Salvation Army shelters are at capacity, they will direct people toward other shelters in the area.
“We give them so many options and resources, and unfortunately if other service providers are at capacity as well, we can only provide [people experiencing homelessness] with what we are given, sometimes that’s a bottle of water,” Leith said. “We don’t know what direction they can take after we give them all of our options.”
The ARCH downtown is also out of shelter space.
“So, unfortunately, right now we’re at capacity and have a waitlist of 200 individuals right now that have to get in, the most we could do right now is to add somebody to our waitlist,” said Greg McCormack, the executive director of Front Steps who operates the ARCH for the City of Austin.
The ARCH, which operates a shelter for men downtown says the shelter has been at capacity since they switched from a walk-in model to a reservations-only model this year.
The city opted to make these changes at the ARCH, which decreased the number of people who can stay there each night from 190 to 130 beds in hopes of making sure that more of those people are enrolled in services and on the path to housing. Currently, the ARCH has 150 people who have reserved beds at their shelter.
Integral Care (who supports adult and children in Travis County with mental illness, substance use disorder and intellectual, developmental disabilities) also says their Safe Haven shelter for veterans and Crisis Residential locations are at capacity, “due to ongoing efforts to assist individuals experiencing homelessness as well as our involvement in the Guided Path Initiative. ”
Despite their limitations right now when it comes to offering shelter, Integral Care employees are on the ground talking to people who live beneath overpasses to let them know how the cleanup effort will work. Integral Care staff will also be handing out “BE SAFE BE SEEN BAGS” to protect important documents, medication and other belongings.
While there are other emergency shelters in the city of Austin, Salvation Army, ARCH, and Integral Care are the primary organizations that assist in providing emergency shelter for people experiencing homelessness.
KXAN has reached out to the Governor’s office for comment on where people should go to for shelter once they are cleared out from these overpasses, as of Thursday morning we are still awaiting a response.
Governor Abbott first told city of Austin leaders in early October that he would direct state agencies to intervene if the city does not “demonstrate consequential improvement in the Austin homelessness crisis” by November 1. In his letters to the city of Austin, Abbott mentioned several state agencies, including TxDOT, which he could potentially bring into Austin.
TxDOT directed KXAN to contact the Governor’s office for more specifics on how the cleanup will work.
“As far as the cleanup, this is no different than any of the previous cleanups performed by either the City of Austin or us,” said TxDOT spokesperson Diann Hodges in an email. “We are focusing the cleanups in three areas in Austin, as directed by the governor.”
When asked about the city’s role in the cleanup, a City of Austin spokesperson David Green explained Thursday, “the city is looking at housing-first solutions, and we will continue to work with the homeless population on long term housing and to get people off the streets.”
“I ain’t going nowhere”
Beneath I-35 at East 6th Street, Wanda Sauls has her bed neatly made and possessions stacked beside it. Sauls said she has been homeless for thirteen years and has lived beneath I-35 for eight years.
KXAN asked her if she heard the state would be coming in to clear out the encampments Monday. Sauls responded by walking us over to a flier that had been posted on a cement pillar. The flier was from TxDOT and described the details of the cleanup planned for Monday.
“They’ve been doing this for years,” she explained pointing to the sign. Sauls said in all of those years, she has never had her stuff taken away.
TxDOT has, in fact, been performing cleanups of homeless encampments in Austin for years. However, the state agency told the city in December it would stop services that are not part of its municipal maintenance agreement. As a result, the encampment cleanups were stopped. This decision came because of expenses related to flooding in the fall of 2018.
Sauls said she is very familiar with how the old cleanups had gone.
“When they come to clean up under here, and if you’re not here you’re stuff [is] considered abandonment,” she said. The old cleanups, she believes, were primarily to clean up dirt and things left behind from people who may have gone to jail or to the hospital.
Sauls was not convinced that state officials would actually move her from the spot she’s lived for eight years.
“Didn’t you hear what I say? This is not considered camping,” she emphasized. “I don’t care what the governor say.”
It’s true that Sauls has not erected a tent. She just has a mattress on the cement with some possessions to the side.
But TxDOT spokesperson Diann Hodges said even if Sauls doesn’t have a tent, she will want to remove all her possessions from under the overpass by Monday.
“There’s no guarantee that mattress will remain,” Hodges said. “If she wants the mattress she would have to move the mattress.”
Hodges noted that one thing will be different in the cleanup on Monday from all previous TxDOT cleanups.
“We are offering the option that if we come across personal belongings — a backpack, a cell phone, something that would be of a personal nature to someone — that we would store those items for 30 days and they could get those items back,” Hodges said.
She explained that tents would likely be collected and saved, whereas mattresses would not likely be saved. Hodges added that TxDOT prefers to have homeless individuals out of the way when they are conducting cleanups.
KXAN asked Sauls: if a state employee comes on Monday and tells her to leave, what will she do?
“I’m gonna sit right here and tell ’em I ain’t going nowhere,” Sauls said.
She added that following the debate around Austin’s homeless ordinances has been confusing. Sauls says she’s gotten an unclear message about where camping is actually allowed.
“Is it, or is it ain’t?” she said, exasperated.
Pointing to her bed she said, “this is not a camping site.”
“We’re taxpayers we got the right but this sidewalk belongs to all of us, we putting our money in it, homeless or not,” Sauls continued.
The debate over Austin’s homeless ordinances
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 Monday. 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 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.
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 and 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.