State to lease sanctioned homeless encampment in SE Austin to chamber-led coalition; plans for 150-bed shelter underway

Cori Roberts, a member of the three-person Camp RATT council and resident of the state-sanctioned homeless encampment in Southeast Austin, has been homeless since she was a teenager. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)
Cori Roberts, a member of the three-person Camp RATT council and resident of the state-sanctioned homeless encampment in Southeast Austin, has been homeless since she was a teenager. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)

Cori Roberts, a member of the three-person Camp RATT council and resident of the state-sanctioned homeless encampment in Southeast Austin, has been homeless since she was a teenager. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)

If negotiations go smoothly, for $1 per month ATX Helps, a homelessness-focused coalition led by the local chamber of commerce and a downtown Austin stakeholder group, will lease the site of the state-sanctioned homeless encampment set up by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott off US 183 in Southeast Austin. ATX Helps plans to start up a 150-bed homeless shelter “as soon as possible” according to a representative.

Abbott first publicized plans of the $1 per month lease in a Feb. 20 tweet, although there were previous reports that ATX Helps was working on a deal for the land. The Texas Transportation Commission unanimously approved entering into the lease agreement during its Feb. 27 meeting. Representatives of ATX Helps said they still need to review and discuss the lease before any agreement is made official.

After consistent and harsh criticism of Austin’s response to its growing homelessness challenge, Abbott opened the nearly 7-acre tract at 780 S. US 183 as a state-sanctioned encampment on Nov. 7. The site’s popularity grew over time, and today there are, reportedly, approximately 150 people who call the encampment home.

On the same day as Abbott’s announcement, ATX Helps launched its coalition, focused on raising $14 million to build and operate a 300-bed homeless shelter with services by the first quarter of 2020. ATX Helps representatives initially wanted the shelter to be on state land and within a half-mile of downtown. With the transportation commission’s Feb. 27 approval, ATX Helps received half its wish. The site is approximately 5 miles southeast of downtown.

The lease outlines a 10-year term with three five-year renewal options, according to state officials; however, a clause allows either side to cancel the lease with due notice. Representatives from ATX Helps said they expect the shelter to be and running within 6 months. Bill Brice, vice president of investor relations with Downtown Austin Alliance, a downtown Austin stakeholder group leading the coalition alongside the chamber of commerce, said the 150-bed shelter would cost $5 million to build and operate for up to two years. Brice said ATX Helps has raised about $1.5 million to date, but expects to line up more donors now that the shelter has a designated site. Brice reemphasized the ultimate goal is to raise $14 million and put 300 total beds on the tract.


About 150 people currently live on the site, according to reports. Robert Rhodes, one of the first residents of Camp RATT—Responsible Adults Transition Town, as residents there call it—objected to the plans for the site during the Feb. 27 transportation commission meeting.

“We had plans and visions for self-management that are inexpensive and effective and would allow campers to come off the streets [and work with service providers] now, not eight months from now,” Rhodes told the commission. “We understand how to work with the homeless.”

Rhodes said residents of Camp RATT sent a counteroffer to Abbott that would price the monthly lease cost at $1 per each person living there today, about “$150 per month” Rhodes said. However, he said Abbott never responded to the offer, and asked the commission to consider the offer. The commission declined.

Brice promised ATX Helps would work with all the existing residents of the encampment and said he hoped all of the residents would live inside the encampment rather than living outside and “facing the elements.” Brice could not offer specifics on the logistics surrounding how people will be welcomed into the shelter once up and running. He said ATX Helps was working with the local Ending Community Homelessness Coalition and service providers to seamlessly join the local service system.

Editor's note: This story has been edited to correct the spelling of Bill Brice's name.
By Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following two years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Su


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