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Zero Waste Advisory Commission talks through logistics of Prop B

Tuesday, May 18, 2021 by Sean Saldaña

With the passage of Proposition B earlier this month, Austin residents voted to reinstate local laws establishing prohibitions against sitting, resting and camping in public in certain parts of the city.

Opponents of the proposition argued that in addition to having a disparate impact on the city’s homeless population, the laws would further stigmatize and worsen homelessness in general.

Supporters of the proposition argued that loosened regulations and increased visibility of homelessness have compromised public safety.

Prop B became the focal point for lawsuits and public political battles, and even drew opposition from Ben and Jerry’s. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say it became the defining ballot initiative of the election cycle.

Ultimately, the results weren’t even close, as voters moved to reinstate the bans by more than a 15-point margin.

Austin’s issues with homelessness, though, are far from over. Technically, the new laws have gone into effect, but the city has another, arguably more daunting challenge ahead of it: logistics and operations.

Last week, the city published a four-phase plan broadly detailing the process for enforcing the laws, starting first with verbal warnings and eventually escalating to arrests by early August. Still, many of the finer points of transitioning to the new laws will have to be handled by the city’s various commissions.

On May 12, the Zero Waste Advisory Commission convened to discuss updates to its work addressing homelessness and how the passage of Prop B will impact its efforts moving forward.

According to Austin Resource Recovery Director Ken Snipes, fires are an issue of increasing concern throughout the city – a worry likely motivated by recent high-profile fires that started in homeless encampments.

In March, multiple lanes of traffic on Interstate 35 were shut down for hours due to tent fires raging under the highway. Last month, the historic Buford Tower downtown made headlines when it went up in flames after a small campfire grew out of control.

Many predicted that after Prop B’s passage, homeless citizens would begin migrating to areas that are less visible to the general public, like the woods. As Snipes pointed out, “As people start to move around, does that increase the fire risk out into the community and in our wooded areas?”

Snipes told the commission, “If people transition from one underpass to another, we’re looking to be agile and flexible in the services that we provide in those locations.” He reported that Resource Recovery had recently created an encampment cleaning team of six people that will work in conjunction with the Public Works Department.

When asked whether Austin Resource Recovery will need additional resources to serve the needs of the city and its homeless population, Snipes indicated that the department is still “playing that by ear.”

Snipes said at the moment, Resource Recovery is understanding the scope of cleanup work that’s going to be needed, while adding, “It is much more expensive to clean up in wooded areas than it is under the overpasses.”

As far as further changes to operations go, the next few months will be critical in assessing the city’s needs. The next 90 days will bring weekly assessments of the homeless population’s needs and movement patterns.

After the presentation, Commission Chair Gerard Acuna reflected, “It’s not going to get any easier, to say the least. In fact, it’s going to complicate itself in the near future.”

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