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Council commits to designated campsites, approves more funds for housing

Friday, May 7, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

City Council ramped up its fight against homelessness Thursday, passing a resolution to set up temporary designated campsites for people experiencing homelessness and authorizing new funds to homeless service providers for housing. 

The passage of Prop B, which reinstates bans on public camping and other behaviors linked to homelessness, along with the likelihood of a statewide camping ban, were at the forefront of Council’s discussion.

“Clearly the voters have indicated that they want to see a more balanced use of public space, and we’re going to do that in our city in compassionate and humane ways,” said Council Member Kathie Tovo, who sponsored the resolution.

Because the reinstated camping ban will force many people experiencing homelessness to move in the coming weeks – potentially to more dangerous areas – the city plans to designate places where people can safely camp.

“When individuals in encampments ask where they should go, we need to have places to suggest,” Tovo said, noting that the city’s emergency shelters are at capacity and homes are in short supply.

In addition to services such as security, lighting, restrooms and storage, the campsites will potentially have tiny homes. City Manager Spencer Cronk will provide more detailed plans by the end of the month based on nationwide best practices.

Though Council had previously considered campsites, the focus has been on housing people instead. 

Campsites will be dispersed throughout the city – at least one in each of the 10 Council districts. In the meeting, Cronk said that parks and other city-owned properties could be potential locations. Exact locations will be determined by July 1. 

If the city’s recent hotel-to-housing conversions are any indication, picking sites may be easier said than done; campsites are likely to receive pushback wherever they are set up.

Council members emphasized that campsites are not ideal and do not supplant the city’s goal of ending homelessness by providing enough housing. 

“I want to emphasize that it is temporary; it is not a solution,” Council Member Ann Kitchen said. “Housing is the solution.”

Council also took steps to advance its housing goals, approving contracts with service providers to expand housing for people experiencing homelessness.

Three of the contracts will kick off the first phase of the HEAL initiative, which aims to move people living in four prominent camping areas into long-term homes.

The first two HEAL items will increase existing contracts with Integral Care and Family Eldercare by $500,000 and $1.4 million, respectively, for rapid rehousing – a service that matches people experiencing homelessness with apartments and offers them short-term rental assistance, among other aid.

The other HEAL contract involves the conversion of a Pro Lodge – where people experiencing homelessness stayed during Covid – into a new bridge shelter called Southbridge. Bridge shelters provide a temporary home until promised permanent housing becomes available. The city will pay Front Steps, a service provider, over $4 million to operate the shelter, with an option to extend the contract for a total of $7.5 million.

Separately from the HEAL initiative, the city will also give $600,000 to Caritas of Austin to expand a permanent supportive housing pilot project. 

Council is set to commit later this month to increase housing for people experiencing homelessness by an order of magnitude: 3,000 homes within three years, a goal set during a recent summit on homelessness with the city and a broad group of community organizations. By the end of that time, Council hopes that the city will be able to provide anyone experiencing homelessness a home within 30 days. 

Council members acknowledge the long road ahead of reaching that goal.

“It is really going to take our collective hearts and minds and dollars to really ensure that our community with the most can provide for our neighborhoods with the least and that each and every one of our neighbors has a safe and stable place to sleep,” Tovo said.

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