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Austin's Plan For City-Backed Homeless Encampments Could Be Derailed By Pushback, New State Law

 A homeless encampment under I-35 near the Austin Police Department headquarters.
Julia Reihs
/
KUT
Austin's homeless strategy officer said an "extensive community-engagement process" is needed before the city moves ahead with sanctioned encampments.

After three months of planning, an effort to set up two temporary homeless encampments on city land could be off the table.

At an Austin City Council work session Tuesday, city staff said the projects would be costly and might be prohibited if they're not in place before a state law banning encampments goes into effect Sept. 1. The new law requires the city to get permission from the state to set up encampments on city-owned land.

The plan was also met with skepticism from Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison and Council Member Paige Ellis. The proposed encampments are in their districts, District 1 and District 8, respectively. Council members began looking into the plan in May, shortly after Austin voters reinstated a ban on encampments.

Dianna Grey, the city's homeless strategy officer, said given the time crunch, staff likely couldn't conduct enough outreach before setting up the sites. Over the past couple years, the city's rush to buy hotels and propose shelters for homeless Austinites has been met with pushback from community members.

"Particularly because of the newness of this model, because of what it conjures for people, in terms of the idea of what ... unsanctioned encampments look like right now," she said, "there really would need to be a more extensive community-engagement process before we could move forward."

Grey said the model is resource-intensive and it would cost between $1.3 and $1.8 million to run the two sites annually. The city previously raised these issues in 2019, when it chose not to pursue sanctioned encampments.

Council members will discuss the proposed sites at their meeting Thursday, though both Ellis and Harper-Madison said they think the city should "table" the plan.

Speaking for Harper-Madison, who was not on the dais, Ellis said the two agree the city should look to other options for getting people into housing.

“At this time, the tactic seems way more complicated than the benefit realized," she said.

The discussion came hours after police and city contractors cleared out dozens of camps along the median on East Riverside Drive. Many had been abandoned after an overnight shooting.

Steve Olson told KUT he had nowhere to go and that he wished city-sanctioned sites would open.

“They gave me one ticket two days ago … for camping, but there’s no place to go … since they changed [the law]. There’s no place to go, because they don’t have the campgrounds open yet," he said. "So, I don’t know what the hell they expect you to do. I ain’t got any money to pay the damn ticket.”

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