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City adjusts underpass cleanup program in light of homeless displacement concerns

Monday, August 31, 2020 by Savana Dunning

In light of concerns around homeless displacement, the Public Works Department is making adjustments to their underpass cleaning program.

City Council approved an amended $575,000 contract with Relief Enterprises Inc. to clean underpasses and bridges at its July 29 special called meeting. Relief Enterprises originally did the work under the Texas Department of Transportation before it ended its cleanup contract with the city of Austin in 2019. The new contract with Relief Enterprises was recommended by the Zero Waste Advisory Commission in July, although commissioners raised concerns as to how the company would handle homeless people and their belongings.

At the Council meeting, several people raised concerns over the contract item, which was pulled from the consent agenda by Council Member Greg Casar.

Mayor Steve Adler asked the Public Works Department to look into transitioning the work to be done by the city instead, shortening the original three-year contract with Relief Enterprises to one year and asking that Public Works return to Council with a transition plan in three months.

Public Works Director Richard Mendoza and Austin Resource Recovery Director Ken Snipes updated the mayor and Council members in a memo on efforts being made to transition the process to be done in-house while also mitigating concerns related to the treatment of homeless people living in these areas.

The memo, sent Aug. 20, states that the cleanup services should not be seen as “sweeps” and are not designed to remove people from the areas. The memo also lists steps being taken by city staffers to ensure the cleanup process does not infringe on homeless camps, including pre-service visits and sign postings, training for city staff and revising postings to include supplemental information about homeless services with Spanish translations.

Signage about the upcoming cleanings will be posted around the area five days before the cleanup. The signs include information on how the cleanups work and frequently asked questions. The sign also features a list of items that are “not allowed to stay on site,” including “anything that is wet, soiled, bug-infested, or flammable,” building materials and indoor furniture such as couches and mattresses. The department revised the signs to provide information on health, mental health and homeless resources, and created Spanish versions.

The sites will be visited by Integral Care counselors before and after cleanup services. People living in the area will be provided with high-visibility BE SEEN/BE SAFE bags, violet bags, gloves and masks, and will be informed to keep all personal items inside their tents. Contracted staff will be told to imagine a “virtual bubble” around tents and consider whether items are personal items. Should a supervisor be unsure about an item, it will be left in place, according to the memo.

Part of this process involves increasing the scope of Austin Resource Recovery’s Violet Bag Program, which provides homeless people with purple bags they can fill with garbage in their area and then drop them off at a designated site for weekly pickup. The department’s new pilot program will have the violet bags distributed before the scheduled cleaning so people may clean up their surroundings themselves, and city employees will pick up the remaining debris.

The next scheduled cleaning will occur on Sept. 1 and cover Cameron Road, Interstate 35, Northcrest/Georgian, North Lamar and Anderson Square. A full schedule of cleanings is available here.

This article has been corrected to clarify that the Violet Bag program is an Austin Resource Recovery program.

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