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Designated campsite strategy remains in limbo 

Friday, August 6, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

On Thursday, City Council members had their most in-depth discussion about designated encampments for homeless people since voting unanimously to explore the strategy back in May. Still, much remains uncertain.

Last week, Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison and Council Member Paige Ellis spoke out against moving forward with encampments, throwing the proposal into doubt. Yesterday, Council Member Vanessa Fuentes said she had reservations about the strategy while other Council members reaffirmed their support. Because the occasion ostensibly called for budget discussion, Council did not take the matter to a vote.

Council’s May resolution envisioned building tiny homes or other temporary structures along with communal bathroom and kitchen facilities on city-owned property to offer people experiencing homelessness safe shelter – an imperative for Council following the passage of Proposition B, which outlawed public camping in the city.

Council members have made clear that providing housing remains their top priority and that the camps would be temporary. “It is not a housing solution,” Council Member Kathie Tovo said. “It is a stopgap solution. But it is a solution and a strategy that I continue to believe we need to have within our portfolio of strategies.”

Because of the split opinions and lack of a vote, there was some confusion on the dais about Council’s direction and how city staff will interpret it.

“I’m not sure that I heard clarity on what our direction is,” Council Member Ann Kitchen said. Mayor Steve Adler concurred, but did not offer clarification. “It’s a good point,” Adler said. “If you could just let us know what direction you’re following,” he told City Manager Spencer Cronk, “or if you don’t think you have sufficient direction, come back to us.”

Without a more explicit policy directive, Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey is unlikely to pursue the strategy, having highlighted its cost and drain on staff time in an Aug. 4 memo to Council.

“Given the timeline, substantial staff effort and financial resources necessary to pursue the creation of a designated encampment on either of the two identified city-owned properties, staff requests direction from Council before initiating any further activity related to community engagement, rezoning, application for state approval, or operational planning,” Grey wrote. “Staff will continue to work toward the creation of additional shelter beds or alternatives in the community. We look forward to receiving further Council direction regarding this resolution.”

Neither Grey nor the city’s communications office responded to a request for comment. The city manager will likely provide more information in the coming days via memorandum.

“My understanding,” Council Member Paige Ellis told the Austin Monitor in a statement, “is it would be up to any of my colleagues to sponsor a resolution for Council approval if they’d like to continue to pursue this, but I don’t see a viable path forward for this strategy.”

Ellis and Harper-Madison came out against the proposal after the city found two viable campsite locations in July, one at 4011 Convict Hill Road in Ellis’ District 8 and the other at 3511 Manor Road in Harper-Madison’s District 1.

Even if Council does vote to set up encampments, the path toward implementation is full of obstacles. Both sites, Grey explained, would need to go through the rezoning and site plan process, which could take around six months. The zoning cases would go through a public process, which includes a commission hearing, before likely multiple Council hearings. Property owners within 200 feet of the site could sign a petition against the campsite. If property owners representing 20 percent of that 200-foot buffer area sign the petition, Council would have to pass the rezoning with 9 votes. Because Harper-Madison and Ellis have opposed the sites in their districts, every other Council member would have to vote in favor.

The Texas Legislature has added another wrinkle to the situation with its statewide public camping ban. Cities that wish to allow camping on public sites have to meet criteria determined by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs.

Ellis said it would best to spend time and money elsewhere and potentially partner with nonprofits to deliver designated campsites. “I would like to see the city continue to fund the nonprofits that have had proven success with designated encampments and tiny home villages such as Community First and Camp Esperanza,” she said.

Before discussing encampments, Council weighed a request from the Homeless Strategy Office for seven new full-time employees as part of its budget talks.

Council seemed supportive of the new hires and focused on whether the money would come from the General Fund or the millions of federal stimulus dollars dedicated to homelessness that have yet to be allocated. The new hires would cost $842,055 for this upcoming fiscal year. If funded, Grey said the office would be able to hire the new employees by October, and that they would help the department fulfill the more expansive role Council envisions for it over at least the next three years. Earlier in the year, Council set a goal of housing 3,000 homeless people within three years.

Kitchen said using General Fund money on the hires would be better. Using one-time American Rescue Plan funds “doesn’t send the right signal to the folks that we’re employing,” she said.

Grey said the office will have a spending proposal for the ARPA money by the end of the month or early September.

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