State officials agreed Thursday to lease state-owned land to an Austin nonprofit for $1 a month to house homeless Austinites, with the goal of ultimately building a shelter on the 6.7-acre tract.
The approval from the Texas Transportation Commission will allow ATX Helps, a coalition of business groups and nonprofits, to take over the site — owned by the Texas Department of Transportation — off U.S. Highway 183 near the airport.
The site currently hosts 140 people, and nonprofit ATX Helps says it hopes to raise $5 million to build a 150-bed temporary structure as soon as possible. Ultimately, it aims to raise $14 million for a more permanent structure that could house as many as 300 people.
Those currently staying at the campsite, dubbed Camp R.A.T.T. – which stands for Responsible Adults Transition Town – have pushed back against the proposal, even going as far as offering their own counteroffer directly to Gov. Greg Abbott in a bid to run the campsite on their own.
Last week, Robert Rhodes, one of the camp's original residents, said he thinks many will leave the site rather than stay in a shelter.
"I get real nervous around a lot of people, and I don't feel comfortable," he said. "So I can't be in an enclosed area like that, and there's a lot of people that same way."
Bill Brice of ATX Helps and the Downtown Austin Alliance says the shelter will take up a small area of the site and that it will offer services to everyone in the camp, though he understands some may not want to use them.
"We would and welcome all of the folks that are there to come inside the shelter to participate in access to services that we will provide," Brice said. "We believe that this is a healthier environment than camping."
Brice says the group's raised $1.5 million so far, but that it needs $5 million to build a 150-bed shelter. Ultimately ATX Helps wants to raise $14 million for a 300-bed shelter.
Gov. Abbott first directed the Texas Department of Transportation to allow people experiencing homelessness to camp on the land in November. Abbott's offer came after months of criticism of Austin's policies surrounding homelessness, which stemmed from an Austin City Council vote to rollback bans on camping in public.
The lease for the campsite could last as long as 10 years, though the agreement allows for possible extensions. It would also give either ATX Helps or the state the option to terminate the agreement early.
This story has been updated.