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Austin Moves To Find City Land For Homeless Encampments After Voters Pass Prop B

Homeless Encampments under I-35 03 23 2020.jpg
Julia Reihs
/
KUT
A homeless encampment under I-35 near the Austin Police Department headquarters on March 23, 2020.

Following a voter-approved reinstatement of bans on behavior related to homelessness, Austin City Council members are looking for land to set aside for city-sanctioned encampments.

City Council on Thursday unanimously approved a framework for a plan, directing City Manager Spencer Cronk to look into city-owned land for encampments where residents would have access to water, storage, showers, electricity and security.

"When individuals in encampments ask where they should go, we need to have places to suggest," Council Member Kathie Tovo said. "This is not going to be an easy process, and it will take a lot of resourcefulness and creativity from each and every one of us trying to identify sites that can meet this bill."

The resolution puts Cronk on a tight timeline. Council wants an initial report on the plan by May 14, with a final schedule on or before June 1.

The move is an about-face for the city. Back in 2019, Cronk panned the idea of public encampments. His office argued upkeep is costly and setting them up "negatively impacts and detracts from systemic efforts to end homelessness."

But Council was forced to revisit the idea after voters passed Proposition B by a 15-point margin Saturday. The measure reinstates a ban on camping in public, limitations on panhandling, and a prohibition on sitting or lying down in some stretches of Austin. Cronk said the city will “proceed with a phased implementation” starting with outreach and education.

Tovo, who wrote the resolution on encampments, said the camps are intended as a temporary fix while the city ramps up work to house 3,000 people within the next three years and as it rolls out its HEAL initiative.

Under HEAL, the city will target four high-profile encampments, connect those living there with housing and then prohibit camping in those areas going forward. People displaced from the camps will stay at the former Rodeway Inn near Oltorf Street and I-35, which has become a temporary shelter.

Council on Thursday also authorized a nine-month contract with Front Steps, the nonprofit that runs the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, to run that new shelter.

City Council first set aside money to buy the hotel in late 2019. It has been housing people at risk of COVID-19 during the pandemic.

Marisa Charpentier contributed to this report.

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