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Council may abandon designated campsite strategy

Wednesday, July 28, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

City Council members Paige Ellis and Natasha Harper-Madison have announced that they will not support designated campsites for people experiencing homelessness, casting doubt on the viability of a strategy Council adopted in May.

“After a week of extremely difficult conversations, lots of research into best practices and a good deal of reflection, the mayor pro tem and I agree that we should table this strategy for the time being,” Ellis said at Council’s Tuesday work session. “We believe our city’s limited dollars and time would be better spent on getting folks into permanent housing rather than the Band-Aid tactics.”

In opposing the strategy, both members reneged on Council’s commitment to pursue designated campsites as a response to the passage of Proposition B.  Last week city staffers recommended two campsites, one at 4011 Convict Hill Road in Ellis’ District 8 and the other at 3511 Manor Road in Harper-Madison’s District 1. Ellis said the announcement “caught a few of us by surprise.” She said concerned messages from constituents flooded Council inboxes, many of them taking issue with the locations’ proximity to schools and day care centers.

The process has been fraught from the beginning. City staffers’ preliminary list of sites caused a stir among constituents in May, emphasizing just how challenging it would be to set up 10 campsites – one in each district – as Council had pledged. The lack of suitable sites has also thrown a wrench in the plans; staffers could only find two potential city-owned sites.

If Council continues the strategy, things may only become more complicated. As Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey explained in a brief presentation Tuesday, the amount of time, effort and money it would take to pursue encampments makes it “a relatively resource-intensive endeavor … in the context of some other options that we do have.” Grey added that due to a new Texas law, the state will have to approve any new encampments – another hurdle to getting them up and running. 

“This is a dilemma,” said Council Member Kathie Tovo, who neither withdrew nor reaffirmed her support for designated campsites after sponsoring the May resolution that began the whole process. “We want to be spending our resources for permanent housing opportunities and the services to help people be successful in those, but people need places to go now.” 

Ellis and others addressed potential alternatives. “We have seen encampment and tiny home strategies executed really well by nonprofit organizations, such as Community First and the Other Ones Foundation at Camp Esperanza, and we should support them in what they do well,” Ellis said. Council Member Greg Casar said expanding the city’s hotel conversion strategy could be a good use of funds. 

The city is prepared to devote more funds than ever to the issue. City Manager Spencer Cronk has proposed a record $65.2 million in homelessness spending for the upcoming budget, and Council voted in June to set aside $100 million in federal stimulus funds for homelessness housing and services, but only if Travis County and local philanthropists also step up

A more in-depth discussion is set for Thursday, when Council weighs extending leases for two hotel-to-housing conversions.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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