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City departments propose centralized trash cleanup effort to keep creeks clean

Tuesday, June 23, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

The city has taken a first look at trash in creeks and identified illegal dumping, littering, large public events and homeless encampments as the four primary sources of trash ending up in city waterways.

In a cross-departmental background report posted last week, the city found commercial locations and illegal dumping to be the most consistent sources of trash in creeks for the past decade. Since 2018, however, incidents involving trash from homeless camps and dumped rental scooters and bikes have increased.

Going forward, city departments propose creating a centralized cleanup contract under the leadership of a single department while expanding access to trash facilities, cleanup opportunities for unhoused residents and long-term housing solutions. The Austin Transportation Department will continue adding signage and scooter and bike parking near bridges and waterways to keep the devices away from creeks and rivers.

“Encampment management and cleanups are a recurring effort that will continue to use city resources until the causes of homelessness are identified and resolved,” the report states. “We have found that engaging and partnering with people experiencing homelessness is effective in reducing environmental impacts of encampments.”

Last year, there were about as many cases of mobility devices found in waterways as there were cases of illegal dumping. By comparison, there were much fewer instances of trash from homeless camps, but the Parks and Recreation Department reports it has removed 187,000 pounds of trash from parklands so far this year under its homeless camp cleanup effort. The report states that an additional 440,000 pounds of trash has been removed from encampments since City Council approved an underpass cleanup contract in March of last year.

In the upcoming budget cycle, the Watershed Protection Department will request $350,000 in additional funds for ongoing encampment cleanup services, bringing the contract total to $600,000. The parks department plans to request funding on top of its $125,000 budget for homelessness-related efforts to hire another park cleanup crew.

Council Member Paige Ellis launched a clean creeks initiative in January to study and address all types of trash and contamination in city creeks, including the dumping of scooters and bikes. In response, Watershed Protection will begin an extensive survey of all waterway trash sources and pathways later this year, concluding with a final report on long-term solutions by June 2022.

In the meantime, the six departments that participated in the background report – Watershed Protection, Code, Austin Resource Recovery, Transportation, Parks and Recreation, and Public Works – plan to develop a centralized encampment cleanup contract and protocol to manage cleanup efforts with technical assistance and funding contributions from other departments.

The report lists a number of ways to mitigate homeless camp trash in both the short and long term. It recommends creating a dedicated cleanup group and new drop-off locations for the city’s Violet Bag program, expanding the Workforce First Program that provides paid cleanup opportunities for people without shelter, and creating housing-focused solutions to reduce the need for encampments.

The departments will develop a more detailed action plan on housing solutions after reviewing an upcoming report by homelessness consultant Matthew Doherty, who is working under contract with the city.

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