The Austin Chronicle

Homeless Campground: South Austin Dilemma

Larger issue still unaddressed

By Chase Hoffberger, April 4, 2014, News

A group of homeless Austinites camping on 18.2 acres of undeveloped land in South Austin were forced to find another place to live last week after a team of Parks and Recreation Department grounds managers and a city cleanup crew arrived to notify them of their trespassing.

The campers, a small but active assembly that had constructed a shantytown of about eight tents around the woodland that runs along Williamson Creek at the corner of South Congress and Ramble Lane, first showed up in late November, bringing a lot of trash, a few piles of poop, and a whole chorus line of drunken whoopin' and hollerin' into the Fairview neighborhood west of the campground.

Graham Cohen, who lives on Heartwood Lane, said the squatters never caused a direct disturbance for anybody in the area, but his next door neighbor told him that that they'd often use the space between their two houses to get from the street to the campground. "That's probably what my dog is barking at," Cohen said.

More pressing, Cohen and his neighbors feared that the trash piles created by the small community could contribute to the type of flooding that occurred in the area after rains hit in October, and that the propane tanks being used to cook meals could help start a forest fire. The latter, Cohen said, is a concern raised by the Oak Hill fire that burned more than 100 acres and destroyed 11 homes in April – though the homeless man once held responsible, 60-year-old Michael Bernard Weathers, was exonerated of arson charges after police determined his propane-aided cooking did not spark the fire.

Calls to the Austin Police Department in late February initially revealed that state penal code requires all trespassing complaints be submitted by the property owner – in this case TDI South Congress LP, a subsidiary of TDI Real Estate Holdings, said to be planning a 352-unit multifamily development. But Cohen's calls to the Dallas-based company went unreturned. A press release from the company suggests that redevelopment was scheduled to start in the first quarter of 2014 – that is, right now. But TDI has been largely absent from the area, and two weeks ago there was little evidence of groundbreaking. TDI did respond to one call from the Chronicle, but only to ask the reason for the inquiry – and nothing more.

Last Monday, Cohen learned through the neighborhood grapevine that his unhoused neighbors of four months were no longer in residence. According to Paula Aguilar, an APD senior officer and district representative for the area, one of Cohen's emails was forwarded to PARD when the city confirmed that the campground fell on an L-shaped plot of city greenspace that lies between TDI's two plots. PARD sent two officers out to the area with a three-day warning to vacate; five officers and a cleanup crew returned three days later. By then, all of the homeless had scattered – save for one who relocated to an area hidden from the main camp.

The eviction comes as good news to Cohen, his neighbors, and their dogs, but doesn't do much to address the larger issue. Alan Graham, founder and president of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, the Christian-based outreach ministry whose roving catering trucks provide food and clothing to homeless in Austin 365 days a year, points out that removing a camp only briefly displaces the concerns of the neighbors. "The reality is that we can call the police and go to code enforcement, and they can break up that camp, but all that's going to do is break up that community temporarily," he says. "As long as that property remains undeveloped, somebody can come back in."

As for the individuals displaced through the process, "that only moves the issue to somebody else's neighborhood," Graham says, pointing instead to projects like MLF's much delayed but in progress Community First! Village, a 27-acre community near Decker Lane, designed to provide sustainable housing, water, sewage, and trash collection to 200 homeless singles and couples. "That [displacement] is, in my opinion, a dilemma."

For Cohen, that dilemma's already starting to resurface. "The guy across from me has a new tent," he wrote last Wednesday in an email accompanied by a photo.

It looks nice and comfortable, like he could stick around for a while, if he's allowed.

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