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Fire draws attention to homeless problem

Friday, January 25, 2019 by Jo Clifton

It’s cold out and homeless people are taking shelter in some unusual places, including stormwater sewers and culverts. It may be shelter, but when you add a candle to a mattress the result can be disastrous. Council Member Pio Renteria took a ride with members of the Austin Police Department as they visited two underground homeless encampments in his district on Riverside Drive about 10 days ago. On Sunday, one of those camps caught fire. Renteria told the Austin Monitor via email, “Last week I visited several homeless camps with APD and I saw firsthand the desperate state of the homeless in our city. During one of the visits, APD informed everyone living in a tunnel that it was unsafe to be there. However, after we left, the makeshift furniture remained and so people moved right back once we were gone. Several days later, in that same tunnel there was fire and thankfully no one was hurt.” Renteria called it “a public safety issue for renters and homeowners on Riverside as well as the homeless who are forced to live in these unsafe conditions.” Ramesh Swaminathan, managing engineer with the Watershed Protection Department, said Thursday his department is working with other city departments to try to solve the problem. He said the city would be awarding a contract for a pilot project within the next two weeks or so to clean up nine hot spots, including two tunnels on Riverside Drive. He estimated that the city would spend about $50,000 to $60,000 on the pilot, though that addresses just one part of the problem. Renteria concluded, “We need to provide a safe place for those who are homeless in our city to sleep, recover and hopefully get back on their feet. That should be our first priority. “

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