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Gov. Abbott says he’ll use five acres of state-owned land to temporarily house homeless Austinites

Friday, November 8, 2019 by Andrew Weber, KUT

Gov. Greg Abbott’s office said the state will use five acres of state land at U.S. Highway 183 and Montopolis Drive as a temporary campsite for homeless Austinites. The site would serve as a stopgap until a privately backed effort brings a temporary shelter online in the downtown area.

John Wittman, the governor’s spokesman, confirmed the effort in a statement to KUT.

“That area is the closest to downtown the state has available,” he said. “The state-provided location includes portable restrooms, hand-washing stations, and comes with commitments from local charities to deliver food multiple times during the day.”

Wittman lauded a push to build a temporary shelter in the downtown area, which was announced Thursday morning. The effort, being led by the Austin Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Austin Alliance under the name of ATX Helps, aims to raise $14 million to operate a 300-bed temporary shelter. Until that shelter is ready, the governor’s office will make the roughly five-acre site available for camping.

“Gov. Abbott applauds the Austin Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Austin Alliance, and all who are supporting ATX Helps for their substantial effort to provide shelter and care for the homeless in Austin,” Wittman said. “Until that shelter opens, the state of Texas is providing a temporary location for homeless to camp.”

The state’s effort took local leaders by surprise. Abbott tweeted Wednesday night that the state would provide acres of campsites for Austin’s homeless, but it wasn’t immediately clear where the site would be until Wittman’s statement.

The strategy also runs counter to the city’s tack. Austin City Council members have traditionally been more focused on permanent housing solutions.

While the city did consider options for temporary campsites over the summer, the city Homeless Strategy Office passed on that possibility as a solution to homelessness, citing evidence from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, the National Alliance to End Homelessness and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In a written statement, Mayor Steve Adler said he appreciates the state support, but hopes the campsite operates on a service-focused model.

“Shelters can be an important part of the range of housing we need and are most effective when associated with a housing exit strategy,” he said. “The state’s temporary camping area can be constructive when it provides people with a choice that has greater safety, services and support and a real prospect of a housing exit.”

De Peart of the Downtown Austin Alliance said he hopes the governor’s campsite strategy incorporates services that point people toward housing and support services.

“We heard about it this morning a little bit, and we understand that the state is directing individuals to a location to camp,” he said. “We would hope that would be only interim.”

Peart said the DAA hadn’t heard specifics of the state’s plans ahead of the announcement, but said the governor’s office had reached out to ATX Helps to provide a list of state-owned properties in the downtown area that could be potential sites for the shelter. The plan also includes building out much-needed storage space for Austinites experiencing homelessness, as many overnight shelters require clients to take their belongings with them when they leave for the day.

Peart said ATX Helps’ plan for a temporary shelter could use city-owned property or warehouse space for that, as the storage space would need on-site security.

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

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