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The City Wants To Clean Up Homeless Camps – And Connect People With Services

Emree Weaver for KUT
A homeless encampment along Waller Creek near Eigth and Red River streets.

A pilot program aims to clean up homeless camps in Austin, while providing resources to people experiencing homelessness here.

The initiative from the city's Watershed Protection Department (WPD) will include regular inspections and cleanups at nine designated “hot spot” camps to address environmental and safety concerns. Included are areas along East Riverside Drive, Wickersham Lane, Waller Creek at Eighth Street, Williamson Creek and Oak Springs Drive.

“The ones that require immediate cleanup are the first ones we’ll go for," said Ramesh Swaminathan, managing engineer for the WPD. 

He said a $50,000 contract for the six-month pilot will help determine what amount is appropriate for the cleanups. Last year, the WPD requested $250,000 over a four-year period to address the encampments.

The department will be working with police, EMS and social service groups, among others. Swaminathan said teams cleaning up the hot spots will receive mental health and first-aid training.

“The folks who are experiencing homelessness, they have faced all kinds of trauma,” he said. “So when we interact with them, we need to be aware and have more empathy toward where they’re coming from.”

There were 2,147 people experiencing homelessness in Austin last year, according to the 2018 Point In Time Count.

A team will connect with homeless individuals and provide support services before WPD assesses any of the camps. Sites with severe risks to human safety will be given a 72-hour notice before being cleaned, and areas with moderate risks will be given 30 days' notice. Regular waste pickups will be done at locations designated low risk.

WPD staff and members of Integral Care’s Programs for Assistance in the Transition from Homelessness (PATH) will follow up regularly to assess conditions of the camps and the well-being of inhabitants.

“The idea is to be kind and empathetic and also offer the level of service that the citizens expect from us,” Swaminathan said.

The pilot comes after city concerns about the spread of homeless camps to creeks and under bridges where flash flooding is a concern. It is slated to begin in a few weeks.

DaLyah Jones is a former assistant producer for All Things Considered and evening host. She is also co-host of the Two & Fro podcast.
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