A homeless camp in an unused state vehicle maintenance yard in Southeast Austin has been growing for months. Beginning with fewer than a dozen people occupying tents and re-purposed storage units, it’s now home to more than 140.
It’s called Camp R.A.T.T., for Responsible Adults Transition Town, and its days might be numbered – leaving many residents anxious and confused.
The camp opened under the orders of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who has waged a longstanding political war with the City of Austin. Abbott said the city wasn’t managing its homeless population effectively. He offered the state-owned property, miles from downtown and out of sight of almost everyone, as part of a solution.
In its first days, residents report, there was no food and no way of leaving if you didn't have a car. But residents soon organized, forming an ad hoc governing board. Nonprofits and church groups also filled the void, and Austin’s transit agency established bus service.
Life is improving at Camp R.A.T.T. – though it's still rough.
Robert Rhodes, a resident of the camp and a member of its community governing board, says people there desperately need money for bus fare, so they aren't stuck at the site, and for “tents, clothes, maybe our own personal showers, a grill that we can use to cook food.”
As of Thursday, the nonprofit had not been incorporated. Any money they get beforehand, Rhodes says, will go toward camp needs.
“I want to make that perfectly clear that this is not going into anyone’s pockets,” he says. “Maybe we can help fix this up a lot better for everybody.”
But just as camp residents began planning their next move, the state began considering a new plan of its own.
The Texas Transportation Commission, which owns the land, may vote next Thursday to lease it to ATX Helps, a nonprofit run by the Austin Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Austin Alliance. The plan is for ATX Helps to build a permanent homeless shelter there with up to 300 beds.
Some residents of the camp aren’t happy with the idea. Many of them live there precisely because they don’t like staying in bunks in crowded city shelters.
“You’re not going to have any privacy in that,” said Mouse, a woman who didn’t want to share her birth name out of fear for her safety. “That’s not going to work out well for people that have anxiety problems.”
“The way that we have it right now it kind of works,” she adds.
Rhodes thinks the shelter could be a good idea, but he also worries residents will lose the freedom to self-organize they have found at Camp R.A.T.T.
“We’re going to be the management of this place. We really don’t need the city’s help, because they’re not doing nothing,” he said. “The governor ain’t doing nothing except battling back and forth. They can do that part. We’re going to take care of ourselves.”
His dream is to grow the nonprofit into a model of autonomy for homeless communities across the country.
“I know this is only a temporary place. But we figure that we can, maybe later on, go buy us some land,” Rhodes said. “Our own land … and make our own camp. A permanent camp site.”