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ZWAC looks to extend contract for encampment cleanups

Wednesday, June 16, 2021 by Sean Saldaña

Last week, the Zero Waste Advisory Commission voted unanimously to advance a contract extension with Relief Enterprise of Texas Inc., a contractor that has handled homeless encampment trash cleanup for the city around Interstate 35, U.S. Highway 183, Loop 1 and U.S. Highway 290.

The contract, which was brought before ZWAC last year, was initially supposed to span three years and cost $1,725,000 $575,000 a year with the goal of ensuring that the “public right of way is clean and safe for all residents and not to remove any individuals who may be camping at the underpass locations.”

In general, ZWAC has been sympathetic toward cleanup efforts that have helped mitigate the issue of homelessness. Last July, when the initial contract was up for discussion, the commission didn’t need to discuss for long before unanimously advancing an approval recommendation to City Council later that month.

Once elevated to the level of Council, the nature of the discussion changed.

The contract’s heightened visibility combined with its politically fraught policy area brought a new level of scrutiny to the resolution. On July 29, 2020, when the resolution was discussed by Council, numerous community members showed up virtually to voice their opposition to the contract.

Chris Kennedy told Council that the contract was “not a solution. This is a displacement campaign.”

Brett Bowman told Council, “I don’t think the service is actually needed. I don’t know who was asking for it … any other situations, this would be a huge violation of rights.”

Those standing in opposition found an ally in Council Member Greg Casar, who said that in private discussions he’s had with service providers and medics, camp cleanups don’t adequately address the needs of the city’s homeless population.

“I think that putting so much money into this particular contract for three years and not setting aside some more dollars that could go towards programs … works with people in a more participatory way,” Casar told Council.

Casar then proposed some broad changes to the contract including reducing its size by $250,000 a year and reallocating that money “for cleaning up litter around homeless encampments” that would be carried out by city staffers, as opposed to an outside contractor.

In the end, after much discussion among Council members, logistics got in the way of any broad changes to the resolution. Reallocating funding, reassessing needs, the ongoing pandemic, and sorting out how a different cleanup strategy would look in practice proved to be too difficult at the time.

The compromise Council struck was only approving the contract for one year (instead of the full three) while also agreeing to continually assess cleanup needs around the city. Council approved an initial one-year term for the contract for $575,000 with an 8-1 vote, with only Casar opposed.

A year later, ZWAC has begun to initiate the reauthorization process, hoping to extend Relief Enterprise’s engagement with the city for the remaining two years.

Speaking to ZWAC members last week, Chief Financial Manager Victoria Rieger said the contract extension “will allow the city to continue these critical cleanup services to provide a clean and safe environment for residents experiencing homelessness.”

Austin Resource Recovery Deputy Director Richard McHale went on to add that the contract extension is needed because despite the passage of Proposition B the ballot initiative that reinstated camping bans throughout the city there are still “folks that are out there, camping in parks and in other areas, exposed.”

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