Wednesday, October 30, 2019 by Andrew Weber

Abbott says TxDOT will start cleaning up homeless camps under highways in Austin starting Monday

Gov. Greg Abbott’s office says it’s forging ahead with cleanups of homeless encampments under overpasses in Austin.

Ahead of a Nov. 1 deadline for state intervention, Abbott’s spokesperson John Wittman confirmed that the Texas Department of Transportation will clear underpasses of encampments and direct campers to city and county resources for people experiencing homelessness.

The decision comes after months of criticism from the governor on City Council’s June decision to effectively legalize camping and resting in public. Council voted to reinstate some of those restrictions on Oct. 17, and those rules went into effect yesterday.

“These notices are the first step to clear encampments from underpasses throughout the city, while providing those experiencing homelessness with access to resources for services and care,” Wittman said. “In addition to these short-term services, the office of the governor is working with a coalition consisting of private sector and faith-based organizations on longer-term solutions.”

Wittman said the effort is being “spearheaded by the Austin Chamber of Commerce” and will be “focused on meeting the needs of unsheltered Austinites not currently being addressed.”

TxDOT told KUT yesterday that it had not yet heard from the governor about cleaning up encampments and did not respond to KUT’s request for comment on the cleanups Tuesday.

The news, which was first reported by KXAN, broke as Council heard updates from city officials on efforts to tackle issues surrounding homelessness in the city, taking them by surprise.

“We haven’t gotten anything, I think, from the governor at this point,” Adler said, “so we don’t know any of the details of that or what that means.”

The news also came as a surprise to Greg McCormack, executive director of Front Steps, the nonprofit that operates the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless. TxDOT’s flyer points people diverted from beneath overpasses to the ARCH and Salvation Army as well as Integral Care, Travis County’s mental health authority, which says it’s working with TxDOT to inform campers ahead of the cleanups, distributing bags for people to stow their belongings.

The problem is, the ARCH and the Salvation Army’s shelter next door are at capacity.

McCormack said the governor’s office left a late voicemail with Front Steps Monday, but hadn’t contacted the nonprofit prior to that. When McCormack did speak with Abbott’s office Tuesday, he told them that the ARCH already had a 200-person waiting list, to which they responded that the flyer was coming out.

“If they are displaced from where they are with the hope of getting into the ARCH or somewhere else downtown, it could prove a very difficult situation,” he said.

On top of that, the cleanups come as Austin prepares for winter, a time when homeless Austinites typically seek shelter under overpasses. The dispersion of people, without any additional shelter beds or housing resources, could make a “difficult situation even worse,” McCormack added.

Abbott’s move comes as the city rolls out a reinstatement of bans on camping, sitting and lying down in parts of the city, a decision that was spurred by criticisms and an admitted lack of clarity on Council’s previous rules it passed in June. Abbott and other opponents have argued on social media that feces and public drug use at camps have created a public health and safety crisis since June. Both APD and Austin Public Health have said data refute that claim.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Julia Reihs/KUT.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Gov. Greg Abbott

homelessness

TxDOT: The transportation agency for the State of Texas.

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