Austinites Without Homes Find Themselves Pushed Out of Sight
Turns out those with and without shelter both want to be safe
The Cleanup Begins: Crews with the Texas Department of Transportation and the city of Austin began clearing out areas under state highways and around the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless on Monday, Nov. 4, creating a frustrating disruption in the already unstable lives of the Austinites currently living without housing in those areas. The state's sweeps began at Ben White and West Gate; as of Wednesday, Nov. 6, TxDOT crews had also cleared camps under I-35 from Holly Street to 15th Street, and were planning to finish out the week cleaning four more sites under U.S. 290 and five under U.S. 183. The city's effort Downtown (part of its Guided Paths pilot project to get people sleeping around the ARCH into housing) was set to take place last week but was postponed due to cold weather.
As the sun rose Monday at Research and Burnet, Will Brower was packing up his belongings, anticipating the cleanup scheduled to begin at 8am. But he had to report to work that day and couldn't wait around to watch over his stuff. He was faced with the choice of abandoning his possessions – including the tent which he says saved his life during last week's freeze – or move them to a spot where he knew they wouldn't be swept up by TxDOT.
Brower has been without stable housing for about four years, after a battle with epilepsy caused him to lose his job and prevented him from maintaining steady employment. Before City Council loosened restrictions on camping, sitting, and lying in public in June, he mostly stayed in wooded areas out of the public eye. But after being robbed in his tent while he slept just over a month ago, he began sleeping in public spaces, like under U.S. 183, welcoming the safety that came with more visibility. Now, he feels like the cleanups ordered by Gov. Greg Abbott – an effort that experts on the homelessness crisis have said will not be helpful – are a sign that he should go back out of sight. "I don't want to go back into the woods," Brower told the Chronicle, "but I'm tired of dealing with this shit. It's better to have my own spot where people can't see me than worry about my stuff getting taken away every week."
Many people living under Ben White were faced with the same dilemma. Michelle Chauvin, who has been without housing for about a year following an eight-month prison sentence, said she didn't want to be living under the highway but preferred it to living in the woods. Under the highway, she lives along a bus route, allowing her to make it to one of the two jobs she's holding down while saving up for a car, which could act as shelter and help her get more work. But the inconvenience of the state's weekly cleanups had her wondering if sleeping in the woods might be a better choice. "I don't want to live out here, but this is the safest place for me to be right now," she told us. "It hurts having to tear my stuff down, because I had my things set up in a way that felt like home. Now, I have to move on or start from scratch."
In Fear of Fire: At its meeting on Halloween, Council dealt with a light agenda in just over five hours. That included the conclusion of a contentious zoning case in Northwest Austin, where residents of the River Place neighborhood opposed new, more dense development they felt would literally put their lives in danger. Ultimately, Council agreed to the upzoning request, with conditions added by Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, who represents the area, on an 8-3 vote, with CMs Alison Alter, Kathie Tovo, and Leslie Pool voting against.
The neighbors contended that Milky Way Drive, which serves as the 42-acre site's only access road, could not accommodate the number of vehicles that would need to flee the area in the event of a wildfire. Joyce Statz, president of the Austin Firewise Alliance, put the risk in stark terms: "If we allow a lot of density in these WUI [wildland-urban interface] areas, we are condemning a lot of people to death." To allay the concerns, Flannigan's conditional overlay would limit the number of new units the project could add to 30, unless a secondary access route is built; if and when that happens, the number of units would be constrained by a 1,200 daily vehicle trip limit on Milky Way Drive, as estimated by city staff.
The applicant told Council that the proposal accounted for wildfire risk by adhering to the International Wildland-Urban Interface Code (which has yet to be adopted in Austin) and incorporating requests from the Firewise Alliance under a restrictive covenant. Jeff Howard, representing the applicant, also emphasized that the project could not reach higher levels of density without another safe exit route from the area: "If we do get secondary access ... all of the 1,100 homes in River Place will benefit."