Homeless RV Park Seeks Good Neighbors
Eastside residents balk at proposed mobile-home park for the homeless
Following a contentious meeting with East Austin residents over a proposed mobile-home park for the homeless, City Council Member Mike Martinez held a press conference Friday at which he asked his colleagues to suspend a decision on the project for at least one year. Last April, City Council voted in favor of leasing a 10.6-acre parcel of city-owned land on Harold Court, just off Highway 183, to Mobile Loaves & Fishes, the nonprofit group that originally proposed the RV park project. But Martinez has now asked City Council to hold off on finalizing the terms of the lease agreement to allow more time for outreach to the neighborhood. "We need to address those concerns with the adjoining neighbors, and if we can't resolve those concerns, we obviously can't move forward with this project," said Martinez, who is one of the project's main sponsors on behalf of the city.
Martinez's announcement came less than 24 hours after a Thursday night meeting where he and Alan Graham, founder of Mobile Loaves, often seemed under siege by the more than 50 residents in attendance. Even before the meeting, which was organized by the Lincoln Gardens Neighborhood Association, a man angrily confronted Graham. When Martinez attempted to calm the man by placing a hand on his shoulder, the man responded, "Take your hands off of me, you filthy pig." The bitter tone persisted throughout the meeting, with residents badgering Martinez and Graham and drowning out their attempts to answer questions. The neighbors also rebuffed LGNA President Janet Blake when she tried to bring order to the meeting (Blake had been sharply criticized by residents for initially supporting the project).
Mobile Loaves, which was originally established to feed the homeless, has worked for four years to bring the RV park project to fruition. Their vision for the park includes a community of 100 recreational vehicles and 50 small cottages that would rent for $100 to $375 per month. The project would serve the chronically homeless, which are defined by the city as individuals with disabling conditions who have been homeless for more than one year or people who have been homeless at least four times in three years. Nearby residents are particularly troubled that people with criminal histories – including low-risk sex offenders – might be allowed to live in the RV park. They are also agitated that the city did not include them in previous negotiations on the project and, at the Thursday night meeting, reiterated their belief that the city kept the park under wraps until it was a "done deal."
"People start preaching to me that I should have compassion" for the homeless, said Cauleen Smith, who owns a house in the neighborhood. "But the thing I'm most proud of in my life is buying a home in this neighborhood, and the city of Austin has decided that doesn't matter."
Over the next year, Martinez and Graham want to work with residents to develop criteria for screening people who apply to live in the homeless RV park and make sure they do not pose a threat to the neighborhood. They also plan to discuss security issues with the community – Mobile Loaves had planned for an on-site director, full-time property manager, and two case managers, along with security cameras throughout the park, but neighbors believe more services are needed to ensure safety. In the event Martinez and Graham cannot persuade the East Austin neighborhood to support the project, they plan to explore other viable sites. "Homelessness is a giant issue, and it needs to be addressed here and everywhere," said Graham. "We need to mitigate this tragedy and travesty."
For now, Martinez and Graham have their work cut out for them – the neighborhood voted 52-0 in opposition to the project. "We have voted that we don't want it in our neighborhood," said Blake. "Somebody else can have it in theirs, but not in ours." Given the response to the homeless RV park – as well as other Eastside neighborhoods' resounding opposition to an affordable supportive housing facility proposed for 5908 Manor Rd. – the question remains whether Martinez and Graham will ever find anyone willing to accept a homeless facility in his or her back yard. City Council will discuss the project at its meeting on July 24.