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Esperanza’s hiatus underscores city’s lack of shelter options for homeless campers

Monday, September 26, 2022 by Chad Swiatecki

The staff at the Camp Esperanza site in Southeast Austin that is currently under construction to provide permanent small homes to formerly homeless residents acknowledge they will likely continue to receive visits from people they are unable to help for another two to three months.

Although the site is currently closed to new campers due to construction that began in the spring, Austin police officers patrolling downtown have for months continued to tell homeless people that Esperanza is the one place in the city where they may legally camp. That ongoing communication problem was revealed at a Downtown Commission meeting last week during a presentation on the state of homelessness in the downtown core.

“The surprise came that APD is telling its officers downtown that if someone can’t comply and the police officer says you can’t be here and they say to go to Esperanza community … the reality is there’s nowhere for them to go and that’s been the issue with the continued (encampment) cleanups outside of the HEAL initiative,” said Commissioner David Gomez, who works with the Other Ones Foundation, which manages Camp Esperanza.

“Until our site is no longer a dangerous construction site, we can’t have more people come here. Our hope is we can create a safe and stable environment where they feel they can lock up their stuff and go about their business and make the necessary connections to leave homelessness,” he said.

The communication issues and lack of other publicly sanctioned campsites for the homeless bring more attention to the issue of how the city can best manage its existing homeless population while trying to scale up a three-year plan to build or provide 3,000 housing units for those who have no homes.

City Council Member Kathie Tovo, whose district includes downtown Austin, said she’s pushed for an every-district approach to create shelters and resource centers throughout the city. She said that model, which would have made it easier to locate homeless individuals and keep them connected to services, was strongly opposed by a pair of Council members who didn’t want those centers located in their districts.

“The real message for me is that we really need places for people to go. It’s a tough conversation and the only way to have a tough conversation like that is to engage the entire Council and make sure we’re identifying places throughout the city,” Tovo said. “If we’re going to do this there has to be one encampment in every area or in every region so it’s not only affecting one part of the city.”

In recent months, city staffers have updated Council or its smaller committees about the ongoing work evaluating the various illegal encampments around the city to determine the priority list for dispersing them. Some of those locations can be helped by the larger Housing-Focused Encampment Assistance Link, or HEAL, initiative that directs residents to shelter and services, but the limits on that effort mean it can’t be used immediately for all encampment locations.

As a result, Tovo said staffers have to use public safety threats as the main deciding factor, though she has also directed police and park staff to relocate people camping on playgrounds or other public areas in a manner that restricts normal use.

“We get encampment questions almost every day of the week. It’s a difficult conversation to have with the public, that we don’t have the resources to respond to every encampment and certainly don’t have the resources to ensure every person in that encampment can receive housing and services,” she said.

Outside of the talk of an every-district shelter strategy, last summer staff recommended two sites in South and East Austin to house sanctioned campsites.

Gomez, who has worked in homelessness services for more than 30 years, noted, “It’s sad how many plans there have been” to address homelessness, including an effort during the Gus Garcia mayoral term that sought to build a large shelter and services hub on just over 3 acres. That concept was later followed by an early version of the every-district plan that stalled due to opposition from neighborhood groups.

“When (Lee) Leffingwell was in office and we wanted to get to functional zero (homelessness) for veterans, the decision made was to create 10 locations and it never got off the ground,” Gomez said.

“NIMBY (not in my backyard) in our city is very powerful and it continues to rear its head, and I think until we as a community decide we are going to do all we have to do to be rid of homelessness as much as possible it’s just going to continue to grow. Rent is continuing to go up … and we’re losing all kinds of professionals and other people, and sadly we’re also losing the part of the population that we rely on more than we know.”

Photo via Facebook.

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