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Gov. Abbott moves to clean up homeless camps under bridges in Austin

Monday, October 21, 2019 by Andrew Weber, KUT

Gov. Greg Abbott’s office says the Austin City Council has taken a “meaningful step” to address homelessness after its vote last night to partially reinstate a camping ban, but that he intends to ask the Texas Department of Transportation to clean up camps under bridges.

Spokesman John Wittman says the governor’s decision is meant to “ensure the safety of both the homeless and fellow Texans.” It’s not immediately clear when TxDOT could start cleaning up underpasses. The department used to clean more than 60 underpasses in state rights-of-way until May, when it handed that responsibility over to the city.

Responding to the governor, Mayor Steve Adler said he welcomed TxDOT’s help.

“If the governor is moving people away from overpasses and helping us house them, then I welcome that assistance,” Adler told KUT’s Audrey McGlinchy. “Because I don’t want people camping anywhere in our city.”

Adler added that he hoped the state wouldn’t fence off areas or remove people from under highways without finding them a solution for housing.

“My fear is, if the governor just moves them in order to hide them, they’ll be moving to places that are less safe for them and for the public generally,” Adler said.

The city took over cleaning underpasses at a cost of $390,000 a year after TxDOT decided in 2018 not to renew its contract with Austin for cleanups.

In a March memo to City Council, Public Works Department Director Richard Mendoza said the decision took his department by surprise, and that it came as Austinites were increasingly requesting cleanups near underpasses with homeless encampments.

“TxDOT gave no indication of plans to suspend the contract,” Mendoza wrote. “Within this same timeframe, City Council Districts 1 and 5, and potentially others, received requests from the community to increase the frequency of cleanups, namely at the U.S. Highway 183 and Cameron Road, and Ben White and Pack Saddle Pass locations.”

Wittman said the Texas Department of Public Safety will work with the Austin Police Department and UT Austin for security at state-owned facilities and that “the governor is also working with homeless shelters in and around Austin.”

The governor’s move comes less than a day after City Council voted to reinstate bans on camping and resting in public after months of public scrutiny over rules it passed in June paring back those rules. The new rules ban camping on sidewalks and camping and resting within 15 feet of a home or open business. They also ban camping near city-owned shelters like the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless.

Gov. Abbott sent letters to Adler earlier this month threatening state intervention if the city didn’t reinstate previous city laws. In his statement today, Abbott said he would keep an eye on how Council’s decision pans out.

“The state will monitor how well the new policy actually reduces the skyrocketing complaints about attacks by the homeless and other public safety concerns,” said Abbott’s spokesman.

While there have been plenty of complaints on social media about public drug use and defecation, the city maintains that it is not experiencing a public health or public safety crisis.

Photo by Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT. KUT’s Audrey McGlinchy contributed to this report.

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