TxDOT to Begin Clearing Encampments Under Highways

Service providers tell Abbott: You're not helping

Our good buddy Greg Abbott is going to help city of Austin workers clean up under city bridges. What a mensch! (Photo by John Anderson)

Gov. Greg Abbott has ordered the Texas Department of Transportation to begin clearing encampments under state highways in Austin beginning Monday, Nov. 4. TxDOT crews began posting signage under overpasses throughout the city on Tues­day, Oct. 29, notifying anyone there that "all personal property and camp debris must be removed" before Monday, and that "any items left behind will be considered abandoned and removed." Abandoned items will be held by the state for 30 days, and individuals are directed to call 512/673-9368 for information on recovering them.

In another bit of subtle cruelty, the flier suggests that the people whom Abbott and TxDOT are sweeping out from what may be their safest place to sleep should call one of three service providers in the area that help people experiencing homelessness "to change [their] situation." Those providers were not given notice to prepare for any increased inflow stemming from the sweeps.

Abbott's office did not respond to specific questions about the plan; spokesperson John Wittman issued a statement reading, in part, "These notices are the first step to clear encampments from underpasses throughout the city, while providing those experiencing homelessness with access to resources for services and care." The statement notes that "longer-term solutions" are also in the works, in collaboration with faith-based organizations and the Austin Chamber of Commerce.

But those seeking the "services and care" promised by the governor are likely to find little of each, because the shelters they are directed to go to are already full. According to spokesperson Corey Leith, the Salvation Army was not contacted by Abbott's office until Monday night, Oct. 28 – less than 24 hours before the fliers went out. That Monday call was the first time Abbott's people had reached out to the Salvation Army to discuss homelessness in Austin, and they weren't looking for input – merely for permission to use the organization's name. the Salvation Army's downtown shelter is currently at capacity; as of September, it had a waitlist of 406 people.

So what happens to those who show up or call next week seeking services, as the TxDOT flier suggests they should? "If someone comes to the Salvation Army's Downtown shelter and we are at capacity," Leith told us via email, "Salvation Army staff refers them to other service providers in the area. We will continue to keep our same process on handling vulnerable individuals and families seeking shelter regardless of the situation in the city."

One provider said he hoped Abbott’s team would “develop a better plan before they start actually moving people... from a place that has been safe for them, without another place to go.”

Front Steps, the nonprofit that operates the Austin Resource Center for the Home­less, could find itself in a similar spot. Exec­u­tive Director Greg McCormack told us Abbott's office likewise did not try to contact him until Monday; by the time he was able to connect with the governor's staff, the fliers had already been posted. He explained that an influx of people seeking services at the ARCH's doorstep could be "especially complicated" at this moment, as Front Steps is working with the city and other providers on a pilot project called Guided Paths, "reaching out to people camping or staying outside the ARCH to get them to come inside or connect them with resources. Our waitlist is at 200 people, as I made the governor's office aware, and adding more people could make the [Guided Paths] work less successful."

As of press time, neither Front Steps nor the Salvation Army had received offers of assistance or coordination from Gov. Abbott's office. Anne Nagelkirk with Integral Care, the third provider listed on the fliers, said they will be doing outreach with individuals affected by the sweeps while TxDOT does their cleaning. But she confirmed that Integral Care's shelters are also currently at capacity. McCormack told us his team would begin internal planning – including how the ARCH could prioritize individuals who are elderly or disabled – but, ultimately, he hoped Abbott's team would "develop a better plan before they start actually moving people ... from a place that has been safe for them, without another place to go."

Since City Council first revised Austin's no sit/no lie and camping ordinances in June, one benefit has been that those experiencing homelessness are more likely to stay put in safe places. That means providers can more easily deliver critical medications to sustain their patients' mental and physical health, or connect them with jobs and housing to put them on the path to exit homelessness. At Council's Tuesday work session, staff highlighted the early success of the Guided Paths initiative, which had contacted 99 people near the ARCH in the two weeks prior.

Of those, 75 are now enrolled or pending enrollment in case management, four more have been housed, and two more have been reconnected with family. Since August, staff reported, 223 individuals throughout Austin have received rapid rehousing or permanent supportive housing; another 230 resolved their homelessness through diversion programs or case management. Matt Mollica, director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coali­tion, explained at the meeting how Abbott's plan would work against that progress. "If there were 99 folks on a Friday night at the ARCH, but they were moved somewhere else and we were trying to engage with them on a Mon­day, that would be a lot more difficult."

The street-sweeping plan was not Abbott's only cynical move of the week. On Friday, he tweeted a video of an incident that occurred nearly two years ago, of a man clearly in the grip of a mental crisis. The man was not and has never been homeless; his lawyer, Krista Chacona, who has represented many clients with mental illnesses, told us she was "wildly offended" when she saw Abbott had tweeted the video and was again "taking potshots" at city leaders actually doing the work to help those experiencing homelessness.

The man's family has asked Abbott to take the video down, but the governor has not responded to them or to the many media outlets (including us) who have asked why he is choosing to mislead his nearly 315,000 Twitter followers. Chacona says the effect of Abbott's tweet on her client has been clear. "It is appalling that [Abbott] would retraumatize my client and his family by airing this video again and exploiting this tragic incident for political gain."

Council will meet today, Oct. 31, for a short Halloween meeting; its only Item related to homelessness would allow staff to negotiate with TxDOT to permanently place trash bins under overpasses. Perhaps the biggest Item on the agenda is a zoning case in Jimmy Flannigan's District 6; the project, set for final approval, has raised alarms with its River Place neighbors who fear increased density in the fire-prone area could put them at risk.

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