Camp Cleanups Prove Challenging for Those Without Homes

Sweeping away lives

Melvin Gadison (Photo by John Anderson)

When Melvin Gadison woke up June 18, he was looking forward to a new job. Gadison has been without a home for four years and has struggled to find work. But he had cleared that hurdle and was set to begin his new employee orientation at a barbecue restaurant that afternoon.

He recently moved with his tent and belongings to the encampment under I-35 at Seventh Street because it's across the street from a public shower. But before Gadison could get started on his morning routine, Lunar Lañas, an organizer with the group Stop the Sweeps (StS), told him that an underpass cleanup coordinated by the city of Austin was scheduled for that day. When would the contractors be at Gadison's camp? "8:30 a.m. or Later," according to flyers that are left at camps at least 72 hours before a cleanup.

Gadison was left with a difficult choice: Leave his belongings unattended or wait around until the cleanup finished. "People shouldn't have to make that choice," Gadison told us last week. "I could have gone to my job but risk my stuff being taken away, or stay here and protect everything. But if they take my stuff, what the hell else I got?"

So he stuck around and waited. But no one ever showed up. Sometimes cleanup workers take longer than expected at a site, and it throws the day's schedule off. Gadison still had to call his new employer and reveal his homelessness, which he had been trying to hide. Because he missed the first day of orientation, the job fell through. "I'm just one paycheck away from getting a room and off the street," Gadison told us. "So waiting around for nothing hurt, I'm not going to lie."

"I know the city will say they're not displacing people," Lañas told us. "But in effect, they are, because they're making people choose between protecting their belongings or going to work. No one should have to make that choice, and it causes people to want to move, which is displacement."

“I know the city will say they’re not displacing people. But in effect, they are, because they’re making people choose between protecting their belongings or going to work.” - Lunar Lañas, Stop the Sweeps

The right of way beneath I-35 and other highways belongs to the state, which for years handled cleanups under bridges until abruptly ceasing in 2019. The city then took over coordinating the work, except for a brief window in November when the state came roaring back, as Gov. Greg Abbott sought to pick a fight with the city over homelessness. After that dust-up ended, the city went back to work, pausing cleanups in March during the initial response to COVID-19 but resuming them on June 8.

Austin Public Works supervises the cleanups, contracting with a company called WorkQuest to manage the work, which has subcontracted with Relief Enterprise for the actual cleaning. Since the cleanups began, contractors have hauled away 284 tons of "trash and debris." A WorkQuest contract renewal for three years and $1.8 million was slated and then pulled from the Council agenda in May, after WorkQuest notified the city it was instead terminating the contract. City staff say a new contract should be posted for approval by the end of July. *

Stop the Sweeps formed in response to the state cleanups; it supports people in encampments with help moving and protecting their belongings and, more recently, with meals. More than that, StS organizers say, they provide accountability. Their presence ensures that cleanup workers don't throw away valuables needlessly, or make an already disruptive process even worse for people who have no other housing.

Public Works spokesperson Kyle Carvell told us the city and its contractors constantly evaluate their practices to ensure encampment residents are respected and kept safe during cleanups.

"Our procedures center around removing trash and debris from the right of way – as well as any materials that may pose a safety hazard/risk to the public," Carvell wrote in a statement. "There is obviously a human element when collecting these materials ... We've found the key in this process is having conversations with those living in these locations, with help from our internal and external partners who work with these ­communities."

Such efforts are not foolproof. Organizers told us of several instances in which a person's belongings – bicycles, sleeping bags, even a basketball – were thrown away without the owner knowing or consenting. Privacy structures, built outside of tents with cardboard or wood pallets, have been dismantled and discarded by contractors. At a June 11 cleanup, workers dumped out water bottles near an individual's tent. Once items are hauled away from the site, there is no way for people to recover them.

Public Works has no published guidelines for what items are considered dangerous, but Carvell says contractors are instructed to only remove items that pose a safety risk or other hazard. "We do not want to remove people's personal property, full stop," he told us.

As for the water bottles, Carvell explained that sometimes contractors have found bottles filled with waste that are meant for disposal. "Clearly, a jug of water does not fit that description and therefore we are now being more diligent in our cleaning efforts," he said. Carvell also points to people in camps piling up their own discarded items ahead of cleanup days as a sign that the service is appreciated. (The city also provides 10 "Violet Bag" sites for trash disposal, seven located under highway bridges.)

StS is also frustrated by a policy that designates the sites as work zones. Per emails shared with the Chronicle, PW's Gumecindo "J.R." Lopez and James Snow began working with the city's lawyers and police in January on ways to keep people out of the cleanup sites. Making them work zones makes it possible to cite people for trespassing on the otherwise public property.

Carvell says the policy is intended to prevent disruptions and keep the cleanups safer and more efficient. StS argues, how­ever, that the new policy is suppressive; Lañas told us that she had been threatened with arrest for trespassing on multiple occasions. Two weeks ago, it finally happened: She was arrested at a cleanup on U.S. 290 near Westgate. While Lañas declined to talk with us about the arrest, her attorney James Clark said it was "an instance of the city and APD trying to avoid public scrutiny and oversight regarding how they are treating homeless people, especially during the ­pandemic."

Cleanups continue, but StS is pressuring the city to end them entirely. "We demand the contract ... be ended and for humane and compassionate trash service to be provided to camps, with an emphasis on respecting residents, built structures and belongings that do not fit inside of tents," a spokesperson told us in a statement.

* Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that WorkQuest has terminated the contract to manage cleanups with the City of Austin, but that the city is still pursuing a new contract for a different company to handle the work.

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