Neighbors With and Without Homes Collide at Roy Guerrero Park

“But then where?”

Prophet Dwight Dwayne Pierce inside his encampment in Roy Guerrero Park on June 27, 2022 (Photos by John Anderson)

The mood was not joyous in early June, as Southeast Austin residents gathered at the Montopolis Recreation and Community Center to discuss their concerns about an encampment of unhoused people at Roy G. Guerrero Colorado River Metro Park. Staff from Parks and Recreation, Austin Pub­lic Health, and the Austin Police Depart­ment were on hand to field questions.

One Little League softball coach said that he was stabbed at a park facility in May. Other people spoke of their cars being broken into, and of vandalism that has left a park concession stand inoperable. Parents said they didn't feel safe bringing their kids to the park. Israel Lopez, president of Montopolis Little League, said that much of his organization's equipment at the park has been stolen or damaged "beyond repair." Animating all of these concerns was a feeling that if the park were located in another neighborhood, the city would never have allowed the encampment at Roy Guerrero to grow large enough to disrupt community programming.

"The location of this particular encampment, from our community perspective, is the logical consequence of city mismanagement and city officials not wanting to address fundamental questions related to equity in our city," said Montopolis community activist Fred McGhee. "There's a reason this encampment is not in Pemberton Heights."

Frustration with the city's handling of homelessness in Southeast Austin has been building for months, among both the housed and unhoused. Many at the encampment, which centers on the final holes of Roy Guerrero's disc golf course, relocated there after being swept from more visible sites nearby, such as Longhorn Shores or along East Riverside. Robert Reyes, a 58-year-old who'as been living in the park for just over five months, said he feels like the city is trying to push him "out of sight."

For community leader Susana Almanza, director of the Eastside environmental group PODER and twice a City Council candidate, the city's decision to sweep encampments along the East Riverside corridor traded one problem for a host of other problems. "There's not as much poverty in the city, but it just shifted it further to the outskirts," Almanza said. The East Riverside camps "became a real big eyesore, because [of] everybody from the airport coming up and down those major corridors, and so it was like, 'OK, let's get them out' – but then where? Where were the alternative sites for them to go? There weren't enough."

That has created tension in the park. Lopez said the presence of the encampment has affected the communal feel at Little League games. "Families, they don't come out in full families," Lopez said. "It's the mother, father, and the participant, the kid. No grandmothers, no grandfathers come out. It affected us – we can't have a concession stand, you can't go to our complex and watch a game, have a popcorn, have a drink, have a pickle, have a hot dog, you can't do anything because our concession stand is down. You can't go to the restroom … They're in bad shape."

A camp in Roy Guerrero Park hangs "no trespassing" and "no loitering" signs
“The city doesn’t have a place for these people to go.” – Fred McGhee

In a statement provided to the Chronicle, PARD spokesperson Kanya Lyons said that the city has responded to community concerns by taking a more active role in supervising and policing the encampment.

"Efforts are being made to reduce the debris at Roy Guerrero Park with partners including Austin Resource Recovery and non-profit partners," Lyons wrote. "APD is providing additional patrols in this area of town. Security officers have been hired to support security needs at Krieg Fields. This site requires a City-wide effort and continues to be a high priority."

Council Member Pio Renteria (Almanza's brother), whose district includes the park, was initially present for the community meeting but left halfway through, and was not available to speak with the Chronicle for this story. Almanza agreed the city has been more responsive to community concerns in the aftermath of the June meeting, but said it has not communicated a clear plan to move people living in the encampment to more stable living situations.

This is not the first time that government policy has pushed poor people unable to find housing into the open spaces of Montopolis. In 2019, Gov. Greg Abbott launched a plan to sweep encampments under Austin highways and relocate people to a state-sanctioned camp off of Highway 183 on Montopolis' eastern edge. That site is now Camp Esperanza, managed by The Other Ones Foundation; nobody plays the same role as TOOF at Roy Guerrero.

McGhee noted that people in Montopolis and Southeast Austin with homes have lived for years without major incident alongside those who lack housing. He said that city policies and dramatic cost-of-living increases have made the encampment in the park "overwhelming" and turned it into a public health crisis, as campers try to survive triple-digit temperatures this summer without reliable access to critical resources.

People living in the encampment have, of course, felt the brunt of that inequity. Gina Arellano Robledo Robo, who spent a short period living at a SAFE Alliance shelter, said that living in the park is in some ways "less safe" than living on city streets because of the relative lack of visibility. Robo said that she recently had her tablet and phone stolen, while Reyes said that he and his neighbors received better city services at their previous encampment off of Pleasant Valley Road. "They had to keep that area clean," Reyes said. "Back here, they could care less."

Residents of the encampment are also concerned that they will inevitably be forced to move again. Michael Romo, a 27-year-old native of Montopolis, said that while people in the encampment have heard that the city is acquiring hotels to convert into both temporary and permanent housing for those seeking to get off the streets, there is little sense of when anyone might be invited to live elsewhere. "I don't know where we're going to go next," he said.

Another community meeting may be held in mid-August to get a fuller update from city officials on their response to the encampment. For McGhee, what the city needs is a plan to address the root causes of its growing housing crisis. Until it has that, he said, neighborhoods like Montopolis will likely continue to feel the brunt of the pain.

"We are in the process of demolishing, destroying, privatizing, and marketizing our public housing, plus the waitlist for our public housing is thousands of people long," McGhee said. "The city doesn't have a place for these people to go."

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