As Clock Ticks, Council Bites the Campsite Bullet
Post-Proposition B work to find places for unhoused Austinites continues
After last week's widely panned release of a long "preliminary list" of city-owned properties that could be designated as sanctioned campsites for people experiencing homelessness, City Council has shown some sympathy for the staffers who had little direction and a tight timeline for their effort. But members are still befuddled as to how some locations could ever be considered. A historic Black cemetery? The vacant Home Depot whose neighbors spent years working with the city on plans for its future? The Colony Park tracts with an ambitious public-private master plan for community revitalization, which has yet to break ground on a single project?
Conversations with Council members suggest that staff knew some sites were unworkable but cast the net so that elected officials would have an idea of their full range of options before whittling down the list. At a Monday press conference, members of the Black Leaders Collective and Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison laid out how too many of the identified sites were on the Eastside despite Council's commitment, should it decide to move forward with sanctioned sites at all, to locate one in each Council district.
Harper-Madison described the list of locations as a "visual aid that frightens people" and prompts understandable pushback from historically marginalized communities. "This process is going to be set back, because we're having to deliberate [over] a map where most of the 'options' aren't even an option," Harper-Madison said. "That's a waste of time we don't have and a waste of resources we don't have." Colony Park Neighborhood Association President Barbara Scott noted the lack of infrastructure in some of the proposed Eastside locations. "How do you bring people to a place where there is no water? No electricity? No grocery store?" A map released by the BLC identifies just six sites that are not located in a food desert (see left).
Meanwhile, the four CMs representing Austinites west of MoPac – Alison Alter, Mackenzie Kelly, Leslie Pool, and Paige Ellis – are all opposed to using parkland in their districts for sanctioned campsites, an option that the Texas Legislature wants to take off the table regardless and that Save Austin Now, the backers of the Proposition B "camping ban" approved by voters on May 1, vehemently opposes. But all four CMs said they're exploring partnerships with private landowners and faith organizations whose properties could be suitable.
Establishing safe, clean campsites that meet the needs of unhoused people involves more than just securing political support. Operating costs need to be controlled, so that resources are still available for longer term stable housing solutions. The Ending Community Homelessness Coalition highlights best practices for establishing campsites in a document it's shared with Council – such as all-weather shelter, hygiene facilities, nearby services and income opportunities, and access to transit.
As Harper-Madison suggests, the clock is ticking: Enforcement of the Prop B ordinances begins on Aug. 8, which is still later than SAN would like. CM Kathie Tovo, who carried the initial Council resolution in 2019, is feeling the urgency. "My hope is that we can eventually turn to each encampment to focus on getting those individuals housing and services," she told us. "But the reality we have to face is our shelters are full. Camp Esperanza [on state-owned land designated by Gov. Greg Abbott] is full. We don't have other places to suggest that are not at capacity, so we need alternative locations."
In a statement last week, a city spokesperson reiterated the preliminary nature of the list. "Some locations may come off, and others may be added, as part of an ongoing examination of potential sites," they said. "Staff will continue analyzing properties and will work to present Council with an update in June."