Homelessness in Central Texas

Austin's homeless residents say Abbott's intervention is a short-term setback without a long-term solution

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The sun warmed a North Austin sidewalk Monday before the state began clearing homeless communities under some of the city's highways. But there was no sunshine under U.S. Highway 183 near Burnet Road.

In the shadow of the overpass, a crisp wind carried the echo of traffic over abandoned luggage, books, bikes, mattresses and tents. The girded-up belongings of Austin’s homeless residents dotted a grid of concrete columns marked with notices of the Texas Department of Transportation's impending sweep of homeless encampments.

TxDOT officials last week posted notices that they would remove all remaining property from under overpasses at the order of Gov. Greg Abbott. John Wittman, a spokesman for the governor, said such clearings will be weekly under 17 overpasses — and could possibly be more frequent at the governor’s discretion.

“This is something we’re doing at the governor’s direction in support of public safety," TxDOT spokesman Bob Kaufman said. "These areas can be rather unsafe for people experiencing homelessness as well as people traveling, so we want to do the best we can to make it as safe as possible,” Kaufman said.

 
 
 

Andrea Aguilar was one of many homeless Austinites who sat in front of their tents anticipating the arrival of cleaning crews Monday. She built a makeshift fence of wooden pallets around her tent complete with a gate for her dog, Titan. Aguilar said she’s depended on the fence and Titan for protection ever since the day she, “woke up with a man on top of (her)." Like many people occupying tent communities across the city, Aguilar plans to return to the overpass after the cleaning.

“I’m coming back. I’m going right across the street, then I’m coming right back over here,” Aguilar said.

The Austin City Council earlier this year relaxed some ordinances prohibiting camping, sitting and lying in public spaces that many said criminalized homelessness.

That sparked a social media war between Abbott and city officials. The governor criticized local officials and pointed to “reports of violence, used needles and feces,” mentioning potential public health risks associated with people experiencing homelessness. But Abbott's threats to intervene also drew ire — and spurred a rally advocating for homeless residents outside the governor's mansion on Saturday.

Business owners at City Council meetings have also actively shared stories about homeless residents impacting their establishments. Still, there’s no data so far that shows the ordinances directly affected Austin’s economy.

The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce said they started receiving complaints before the ordinances were changed. But after the ordinances were changed, the concerns became louder. Many were focused on Austin’s reputation.

“We were being mentioned in the same breath as San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle as cities with a visible problem that are struggling to deal with it,” said Brian Cassidy, chair of the board of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.

The Texas Tribune reached out to Downtown Austin Alliance, Visit Austin and the local Aloft, JD Marriott and Omni hotels, but they all declined to comment. But in the Sheraton Austin Hotel in the Capitol, they haven’t seen a dip in their customers after the ordinances.

 
 

“I think it's more prevalent that people are talking about it now and it's on the news. But I don't think it's changed anything,” said Jeff Keeley, general manager of the hotel. “I think people were here before and they're still here.”

Last month, after weeks of fierce criticism, the council partially reversed itself and banned camping on city sidewalks, near homeless shelters and in high wildfire risk areas. Those changes went into effect last week. On Monday, Abbott followed through on his promise to use state resources to intervene if the city officials didn't show “consequential improvement” in dealing with homeless people camping in or near highly visible public places.

At Interstate 35 and Cesar Chavez Street on Monday, Jolie Fifer moved what she could across the street in anticipation of an early morning cleaning. However, while she and others waited for TxDOT, they were given camping notices from Austin Parks and Recreation giving them 24 hours to move from the area or receive a citation for violating city ordinance.

Kaufman said the state's sweeps will remove all property, including large items like tents and chairs. While there is no law preventing people from reestablishing camps under the overpasses after the clean-up, they will need to pack up again for future sweeps. He deferred to the governor’s office for how or whether the cleanups will address homelessness.

 
 

Kaufman also said the property collected will be held for 30 days if owners want to claim it. However, he did not have details about where and how the property can be recovered.

People living in tents spent the few days prior to the cleanup packing. Several roll-off dumpsters were delivered to homeless communities Friday evening. TxDOT declined to comment on whether or not they were provided by TxDOT. While several people said they regretted potentially losing items in the TxDOT cleaning, most people experiencing homelessness said it wouldn’t be the first time they were set back.

Ray has been homeless for seven years and asked to only be referred to by his first name because he worries about his family learning that he’s homeless.

“We’ve lost it all before. Years of tools, years of time,” the 37-year-old said.

Ray said the cleanups and changing rules on where people can sleep makes homeless residents feel like outsiders.

"Everybody out there is one mortgage payment away from being out here with us," he said.

Greg McCormack is the executive director of the nonprofit Front Steps, which oversees operations of the downtown shelter Austin Resource Center for the Homeless.

He told reporters outside of the ARCH Monday that the Austin Police Department escorted a crew to clean the area around the ARCH before TxDOT started clearing under highways.

 
 

“The biggest question that still gets asked is ‘where do you go?’ We’ve got to get better as a community on the answer to that,” McCormack said.

City spokesperson David Green said the cleaning around the ARCH was a pre-planned cleaning that happened to be on the same day as the state’s clearing of camps.

“We can’t let our schedule be driven by what state agencies are doing," Green said.

But Green also accused the state of treating the symptoms of homelessness. He said the city is addressing causes and is prioritizing finding housing for people without homes.

 

Late Monday, Aguilar said TxDOT hadn't yet cleaned where she stays under U.S. 183 near Burnet Road. She said she's been living on the streets since she was 11 and officials routinely reshuffle homeless residents, but provide little long-term direction on where they should go.

“Why can’t they figure out a solution besides ‘They can’t be under this bridge,'" said Aguilar, now 38. "Because there’s nowhere else to go. I’m not going back into the woods. No way, no how. You can’t just tell us to go without a solution, that’s wrong."

Juan Pablo Garnham contributed to this story, which was published first at the Texas Tribune, a non-profit, digital-only news organization focused on statewide legislative and policy issues.

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