Austin's NPR Station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Austin

As Camp Gets Demolished, New Shelters Are Built For Austinites Experiencing Homelessness

Esperanza Better Shelter 04 16 21.jpg
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Residents have begun constructing single-person shelters at Esperanza Community, a state-sanctioned camp for Austinites experiencing homelessness.

As an excavator peeled apart a decades-old garage housing folks at a state-sanctioned camp in Southeast Austin, new construction was ramping up across the 5-acre lot.

The TxDOT site, known as the Esperanza Community, has served as a ​home for people living outdoors since late 2019. A few of the roughly 170 residents used the garages for shelter. This week, neighbors have been working with TxDOT crews — and getting paid — to build 10-by-12 shelters to replace them.

The Other Ones Foundation, the nonprofit that helps run Esperanza, hopes there will be a single-person shelter for every resident.

Esperanza Enrique Ybarra 04 16 21 .jpg
Gabriel C. Pérez
Esperanza resident Enrique Ybarra helps construct a shelter. The shelters are insulated and will have air-conditioner hookups.

Max Moscoe, a community engagement coordinator with The Other Ones, says the shelters were paid for with a private donation from the firm Glimmer, which invests in efforts to reduce homelessness in Austin. The donation is also going toward wages for the residents helping out.

"We're paying them a dignified and living wage of $15 an hour. So, to me, that's the coolest part," he said. "It's like people are building themselves up."

The shelters have air-conditioning hookups to provide residents with some respite. The camp is on a parking lot, so the summers can be oppressive. They're also insulated for the occasional cold snaps in Central Texas. Over February's historic freeze, one resident died at Esperanza.

All told, The Other Ones aims to build 200 shelters.

The effort began in earnest in November. Before that, though, the privately backed group ATX Helps got the state's OK to manage the site. It initially planned to construct an open-air tent shelter, but the project fizzled out.

After that, Moscoe said, The Other Ones took over. It got feedback from residents who said they preferred single-person structures over a larger shared shelter. So, the nonprofit began ramping up fundraising efforts.

Esperanza TxDOT Demolition 04 16 21.jpg
Gabriel C. Pérez
An excavator dumps a support beam from a garage into a dumpster. The land on which Esperanza Community sits used to be a maintenance facility for TxDOT.

The site was first designated a state-sanctioned campground in 2019, when Gov. Greg Abbott partnered with the Downtown Austin Alliance and the Austin Chamber of Commerce. Abbott has been a fierce critic of the Austin City Council's vote that year to scale back ordinances prohibiting resting and camping in public. He and others say the proliferation of encampments across the city has made Austin less safe.

Austin voters will soon decide whether to reinstate the city's former rules. Opponents argue they made it harder for people transitioning out of homelessness.

RELATED | Prop B Would Reinstate Austin's Old Laws Related To Homelessness. Here's What That Means.

State lawmakers have also filed a handful of bills this session that would preempt Austin's rules surrounding homelessness.

Moscoe said The Other Ones isn't immediately concerned about what happens at the state or city level. He said the nonprofit is focused simply on getting people out of public encampments — whether they're legal or not.

"We know that ... it's inhumane. So ... this is a way forward," he said. "It's a very long journey from on the streets [and] into stable housing. It doesn't happen overnight. It's a really, really long journey. So what we need is a safe place for people to be while they walk that journey, and that's what our hope is for the Esperanza Community."