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PARD contends with homeless encampments during pandemic with limited resources

Tuesday, September 29, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

With nearly 300 parks and 17,409 acres of property to oversee, Wes Bickham, an environmental coordinator with the Parks and Recreation Department, has a lot of ground to cover in his work finding alternative solutions for people experiencing homelessness who are camping on city park grounds.

Couple this vast expanse of city greenery with the CDC recommendation that cities should not evict or remove encampments during the pandemic, and the parks department finds itself doing a delicate balancing act, encouraging campsite hygiene management while removing those that violate city ordinances.

Although the city revised its camping ordinances last year, city code still prohibits people from violating park curfew hours. Code similarly prohibits disruptive behavior in a public recreation area. Both of these situations can lead to a criminal trespass violation for park campers, although PARD Director Kimberly McNeeley says several warnings are required before enforcement.

McNeeley told the Parks and Recreation Board on Sept. 23 that the parks department is working to abide by the Centers for Disease Control recommendations on not relocating campsites, but that “it’s a judgment call.” She said camps located in dangerous areas like flash flood zones or that pose a danger to the community become candidates for relocation. The remainder of the camps are left undisturbed since maintaining a database of their locations makes it easier to provide contact tracing and prevents the inadvertent spread of disease that can result from relocation.

For encampments that do get relocated, the process does not happen overnight. If 311 receives a complaint about an encampment on city property, the parks department will first issue a warning to the inhabitants before sending a service provider like the city’s Homeless Outreach Street Team to speak with the individuals. If the issue is not resolved, the department will issue a final warning before calling the Austin Police Department for enforcement.

“This is a huge issue, and we have very finite resources at PARD to deal with it,” Board Member Dawn Lewis said.

The parks department is only independently responsible for dealing with low-priority sites on parkland. Low-priority sites are those with no environmental or safety issues. McNeeley said that the department works to manage those on an ongoing basis, even engaging residents to lead cleanup efforts.

During ECHO’s annual point-in-time count, a federally mandated data collection effort, the results showed an 11 percent increase over the homeless population recorded in 2019. The data collected by PARD for each campsite includes location, number of individuals, current prioritization, service provision, follow-up visits, and photographs. The department also tracks the interactions of service providers with camp inhabitants.

Board Member Romteen Farasat noted that the parks department should also track the success rate of these interactions to better understand the efficacy of connecting people in the homeless community with resources.

McNeeley noted that while Bickham is dedicated to collecting data and ensuring that the parks remain safe for all residents, he is only one person, making the process a very slow one.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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