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Council proposes focus on four encampments in HEAL resolution

Monday, January 25, 2021 by Chad Swiatecki

The city will focus on four encampments as the first phase of a plan to reduce the growing homeless population by providing housing and support services.

The resolution, called the HEAL (Housing-Focused Homeless Encampment Assistance Link) Initiative and slated for the Feb. 4 City Council meeting, directs city staffers to develop a strategy for quickly moving people from the four camps into housing, with results expected within weeks of its passage. The resolution also directs the city manager to designate $3 million from the budget to fund the first phase, the results of which will be used to move forward with at least two subsequent phases in other areas.

While the resolution does not designate specific encampments, its wording gives general direction to staffers to target four known gatherings of homeless people located in South Central Austin, East Austin, the Central Business District and Northwest Austin.

Council Member Ann Kitchen, one of the sponsors of the resolution, said Council wants city staffers and homelessness services organizations to select the exact areas in the first phase. She did agree that the area underneath Ben White Boulevard near Menchaca Road has long been in need of immediate help to provide housing and services.

“We don’t think it’s appropriate to name the specific areas. We felt it was important for the homeless strategy officer (Dianna Gray) to be able to use this guidance for these places and then go forward with specific places,” she said. “It’s no secret that we’ve talked before about the median area under the overpass at Menchaca where people are right next to cars. And we’ve also had circumstances in the past where a person has stumbled into a lane of traffic … it’s intended to be an example and certainly would be appropriate for this.”

Gray and representatives from homelessness services groups will also work to identify ways to provide more housing in the future. The four areas identified in a follow-up report to Council on Feb. 18 will soon after be designated as no-camping zones via a change to city ordinance, to prevent the encampments from attracting more people once current inhabitants are moved into housing.

The first phase is expected to be completed within six months.

Council Member Mackenzie Kelly, who co-sponsored the resolution, said it represents the city’s “most well-articulated plan” for moving the homeless into housing. Kelly supports plans to provide temporary housing through the purchase of hotels and motels, but said it is also appropriate to look for land where those more comfortable camping could do so safely while waiting for permanent housing help.

“I personally don’t see hotel and motel purchases as the only way to address this,” she said. “Going forward we need to have additional options for people experiencing homelessness that aren’t interested in a hotel and may like camping where they are. Finding land, to me, would be ideal for them to have a place to go where they can be in the interim until housing is available.”

Asked how the proposed action could mesh with a possible public vote to reinstate the city’s prohibitions on camping and occupying public spaces, she said the two efforts aren’t at cross purposes.

“This really aligns with the current ordinance, and I think anyone who is supportive of the petition would be supportive of our resolution. I don’t feel anybody in Austin wants to see our neighbors who experience homelessness to continue to live in the conditions they’re in.”

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