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Photo by Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT

City staff ask for more time, direction on Austin’s plan to set up homeless encampments

Wednesday, June 2, 2021 by Andrew Weber, KUT

preliminary plan to set up encampments on city-owned land in Austin has hit a snag.

City Council directed city staffers to identify land for temporary camps last month after voters reinstated the ban on public encampments. The initial list was met with pushback, so staffers have asked to extend Thursday’s deadline to next month and begin setting up a temporary shelter in the meantime.

Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison told City Manager Spencer Cronk and staff at a briefing Tuesday she wished the rollout of a list of 45 potential sites was more transparent both internally at City Hall and with residents.

She said she found out about the list the day before it was released May 18.

“I don’t think it offers our constituents much in the way of … (us) representing them well, when it’s pretty clear that we don’t have the kind of clear communication with the city manager’s office that we should have,” she said. “I shouldn’t have to find out the day before.”

Last week, Harper-Madison and other Black leaders suggested the selection process didn’t examine Austin’s history of racism and redlining. More than half the proposed sites were on the east side, which has been historically underserved by the city.

Ultimately, staff found most of the 45 sites were unusable for various reasons, and a bill passed by the Texas Legislature could take parkland completely off the table.

Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department Director Kim McNeeley told Council only one site would be viable under the bill, which Gov. Greg Abbott has signaled he would sign.

In light of that, staffers suggested the city set aside $4.2 million from the American Rescue Plan Act to set up a temporary shelter at one of the hotels the city acquired during the pandemic to house Austinites at risk of contracting Covid-19. With that money, Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey told Council, the city could operate the site for a year. Staff expects it could be up and running by mid-July.

Council passed a resolution May 6 to look into encampments, directing staffers to find city-owned land that could accommodate 50 people on a 2-acre tract or 100 people on a 4-acre tract for a period of two years. Properties needed to have access to transportation and food resources, and couldn’t be within a floodplain or an area at risk of wildfires.

At a work session after the list of 45 sites was released, Council members removed high-traffic and environmentally sensitive parkland from the list, as well as land close to schools or already in the process of being developed by the city.

In a memo ahead of Tuesday’s briefing, Grey suggested the criteria Council established severely limited the city’s options. She asked Council to make them less broad to include more public land.

After that, staff could come back to Council with options by July 1, the memo said.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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