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Watershed department works with city to clean up homeless camps

Monday, February 11, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

The number of people experiencing homelessness is growing in the city of Austin. Last fall, recognizing the crisis on the streets and the pressure on city resources, City Council approved an increased budget to help relieve the situation.

In addition to a new “homelessness czar,” the budget includes funding for the Watershed Protection Department to hire a contractor for an estimated $1 million over four years to clean up refuse in creeks or drainage facilities such as trash, propane tanks, syringes and human waste that homeless people are leaving behind.

As many homeless camps are situated in watersheds, along with public safety issues come stormwater conveyance contamination and flood risk to those living in the camps. According to Assistant Director Jose Guerrero of the Watershed Protection Department, even if the city cleans up a camp, “As soon as we clean it out, it frequently gets backed up in another one or two months.”

In an effort to stop the perpetual cycle, Guerrero told the Environmental Commission at its Feb. 6 meeting that instead of merely clearing camps and tossing the debris into dumpsters, the Watershed Protection Department is going to try a “service-oriented approach” at nine different campsites.

The pilot campsites include three on Riverside Drive, one on Wickersham Lane, two on Warehouse Row, one on Stassney Lane, one on Oak Springs Drive, and one under the Waller Creek Tunnel on Eighth Street.

At each site, the cleanup crews will try to connect homeless people with services before commencing with any cleanup work. In order to accomplish this goal, the Watershed Protection Department is partnering with the Parks and Recreation Department, Austin Police Department, Austin Resource Recovery, Emergency Medical Services, and the Downtown Austin Community Court.

In addition to bringing mental health and substance abuse services to the campsites, Ramesh Swaminathan, an engineer at the Watershed Protection Department, explained to the commission that Watershed is working in conjunction with Parks and Recreation to implement the Leave No Trace effort that the parks department is using in all city parks. “In these campsites, we have folks who are fully licensed and qualified and go engage with people experiencing homelessness and gradually educate (them),” said Swaminathan. The idea behind this push is not only to keep the environment cleaner but to create safer camps for people to live in.

Swaminathan doesn’t think the current six-month contract that they have to clean up camps and educate the inhabitants will be nearly enough time to make a significant change. He told the commission that the watershed department fully expects to increase the length of the contract maybe even as early as this year.

“(This solution) is more empathetic than I could have hoped for,” said Commissioner Katie Coyne. “This is something I will reference and is a highlight to my week.”

David Gomez of Integral Care noted that empathy is only part of the equation that is going to help homeless people find their bearings and empower them to make better decisions. The larger problem, he said, is housing in Austin. “We need affordable housing,” he said. Without a safe place for these individuals to call home, the cycle will continue.

Photo by Jo Clifton.

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