Questions Abound as New Campground, Shelter Plans Announced

Helping address homelessness, or delaying real solutions?

TxDOT crews clearing encampments under U.S. 183 earlier this week. (Photo by John Anderson)

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday, Nov. 7, a plan to designate a five-acre tract of state-owned land near Montopolis Drive and U.S. 183 as a space for people experiencing homelessness to camp – despite national and local experts explicitly recommending against this strategy.

Abbott’s announcement comes days after Texas Dept. of Transportation crews began clearing out existing encampments located under highway bridges throughout Austin. A memo issued by Assistant City Manager Rodney Gonzales on Aug. 15, in response to direction from City Council asking staff to explore the possibility of setting up safe encampments throughout the city, firmly rejected the idea. “Creating these environments may make it look and feel like the community is taking action to end homelessness on the surface,” the memo reads, “but, by themselves, they have little impact on reducing homelessness.”

The memo recommends against establishing such camps, because they “can prove difficult to manage and maintain.” Abbott’s plan, such as it is, lacks detail on how the state’s camp would serve the interests of people experiencing homelessness. In a statement, a spokesperson for Abbott said the camp would be equipped with “portable restrooms [and] hand washing stations,” and would include “commitments from local charities to deliver food multiple times during the day.”

Those amenities are all well and good, but only represent a marginal improvement over the places where people have been camping until Abbott forced them to move. The governor’s plan makes vague mention of providing health care and case workers on-site, but does not name which service providers he expects to do the work of connecting people with services and housing. Without actual case management services on-site, concerned advocates say, the camping area will serve as nothing more than a holding area. It is unclear at this point how many people would be able to stay at the site – feeding into concerns over the manageability of the camp.

The Austin Chamber of Commerce also announced today, Nov. 7, the formation of a coalition of businesses, faith leaders, and charities under the moniker “ATX Helps” that aims to raise $14 million to build and operate a temporary emergency shelter (basically a high-end tent, known as a “Sprung” shelter). The facility would include 300 beds, and would have low barrier for entry – men, women, couples, and their pets will all be welcome at the shelter. The structure itself will cost about $2 million, with the remaining $12 million going toward two years of operating the site through providing utilities, on-site laundry, meals, and wraparound services to help people as they work to exit homelessness, although no service providers have as of yet agreed to provide such assistance. A storage facility will also be offered at the site, so people can safely store their belongings while staying at the shelter.

Mayor Steve Adler told the Chronicle that both ideas could be helpful, but that the city would be focused on “permanent housing solutions.” He applauded the ATX Helps coalition for offering “constructive help” and said that emergency shelters are an important part of the solution to homelessness, but "are most effective when associated with a housing exit strategy.” He had similar thoughts on Abbott’s encampment plan, saying it could be helpful if it “provides people with a choice that has greater safety, services and support and a real prospect of a housing exit.”

But service providers and advocates appear leery of both ideas. Thus far, no one has stepped forward to operate either Abbott’s temporary camping site or the proposed Sprung shelter. The city, meanwhile, is pursuing a different strategy that is more focused on “housing-first” solutions – such as the plan to purchase motels and repurpose them into permanent supportive housing, with the first one of these conversions happening within the next 30 days.

Matt Mollica, executive director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, told the Chronicle of the Gov.’s plan for a designated camping area and the Chamber’s emergency shelter, “It’s not how we would spend our money.” Mollica added: “We don’t believe shelter is a lasting way to end homelessness, so it’s not something we discuss to address the problem in our community. What we need is more permanent supportive housing, more rapid rehousing, and more investment in diversion solutions.”

But, Mollica said, if Abbott and the Chamber have done the work of engaging people experiencing homelessness and determined that this is something they want and will use, then it could be a good investment. “If you’re not involving people in these conversations,” Mollica told us, “it’s hard to determine if the Sprung shelters or organized camping area is going to work.” Gov. Abbott’s office did not respond to our questions about how they engaged with the homeless community, or about other specifics of the proposal.

In a press release, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty issued a firm rebuke of both ideas Thursday afternoon, listing several concerns with whom the “mega shelters” will serve and what problems they will create. One potential problem the Law Center mentions echoes fears conveyed by others to the Chronicle: that the new tent shelter and designated camping area “will not provide enough capacity for all unsheltered homeless persons in Austin, and the Law Center fears that (their) existence will be used to justify unfettered enforcement of Austin’s anti-camping ordinance.”

The logic behind this concern is that if people experiencing homelessness have a bed they can go to – even if that bed is in a place they don’t really want to go, or that creates more challenges for them – defending their right to sleep outside will be more difficult. “Criminalizing homelessness does nothing to end it,” Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the Law Center, is quoted as saying. “It simply makes life even more miserable for people who are already suffering and makes it harder for them to leave the streets, harming them and the entire community.”

Bill Brice, vice president of the Downtown Austin Alliance, one of the members of the ATX Helps coalition, told us that the Sprung shelter would fit into the housing-first model by providing people living on the street a place to stay if a housing unit was not immediately available. “If (someone) is languishing on the street, they aren’t making any progress on addressing their needs. If we get them under a roof, where they have access to services, but are not required to engage in those services, we can better help them.” Brice pointed to a gap analysis conducted by ECHO that points to the need for an additional 350 shelter beds by the end of 2020.

But ECHO board chair Mark Littlefield characterized the need for more shelter beds as secondary to the need for more permanent supportive housing. In a perfect world, the emergency shelter facilities would serve as triage centers where people experiencing homelessness can have their needs assessed and then exit those shelters into permanent solutions – but until those permanent solutions are developed and funded, increasing temporary shelter capacity simply creates a larger bottleneck. However, some on Council seem more supportive of both ideas.

Council Member Kathie Tovo told us she agreed with Mollica that the community should stay focused on housing-first, but if Abbott or the Chamber’s plan could be done in addition to the city’s goals of establishing more permanent housing solutions, she would support both plans. “I welcome and encourage more private sector participation, ” Tovo told us. “I support housing-first and intend to encourage city investment in that direction, but I also believe that investing in emergency shelter is important.” CM Ann Kitchen agreed that the ATX Helps campaign was “a step in the right direction,” and told us Abbott’s camp site could work, but "the key is that camping is temporary.”

District 3 CM Pio Renteria, who represents the area where Abbott’s camp is located, told us in a statement that he hopes Abbott’s plan represents the start of a “serious effort” from the state on ending homelessness. “To end homelessness we must have a sustained, prolonged effort from the state to provide access to services and affordable housing,” Renteria said.

State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, whose House District 51 also encompasses the camping site, was slightly less restrained in an issued statement. Expressing concern that his constituents who live around the site were left out of the discussion, Rodriguez wrote, “I am primarily concerned that my constituents who live in the area have a voice in the process and that this temporary encampment area is managed in a humane and compassionate way, should this proceed." He added, “We must also ensure that there are adequate resources for the people who choose to take shelter in this location and strive to replace this stopgap measure with more permanent housing options as soon as possible."

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homelessness, Greg Abbott, Steve Adler, End Community Homelessness Coalition, ECHO, Mark Littlefield, Matt Mollica, Rodney Gonzales, Bill Brice, Downtown Austin Alliance, SPRUNG shelter, Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, Ann Kitchen, Pio Renteria, Kathie Tovo, Eddie Rodriguez

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