Austin will expand program that hires the homeless to clean up homeless encampments

Homeless encampments have been set up under the I-35 overpass in Central Austin.

Homeless encampments have been set up under the I-35 overpass in Central Austin.

People experiencing homelessness can get paid $15 per hour, receive lunch and transportation, and connect with case management services by cleaning up homeless encampments in and around North and South Austin parks under a taxpayer-funded program that City Council on Oct. 3 voted to expand.

The Workforce First program was the brainchild of former Council Member Ellen Troxclair, who urged city staff to explore work opportunities to those experiencing homelessness back in 2017. The program began as a pilot in 2018 and focused on cleaning up parks, greenbelts, areas tagged with graffiti and some homeless encampments. City Council’s decision to put $720,000 in taxpayer money into the program is the largest endowment for the program yet, and city staff said the program will now focus on cleaning 40 “medium to large” encampments in the city’s parks.

The decision comes less than 24 hours after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott threatened state intervention if Austin Mayor Steve Adler and City Council did not show “consequential improvement” in addressing the city’s homelessness crisis by Nov. 1.

The program has primarily focused on the city’s parks, greenbelts and areas covered in graffiti. However, Adler asked, given the heightened visibility of waste in the city, if the program should be expanded to cleaning up overpasses and beyond. City staff said they could bring a report back in six months to show how such an expansion could work, but Adler said staff should come back next week to discuss a further expansion.

“I don’t think we need to wait,” Adler said. “I think the community wants a more immediate answer.”

The program, thus far, has paid its employees in cash. Adler cited a program in San Jose in which the city distributed debit cards and directly deposited the payments to its employees. He asked city staff to explore potentially bringing this to Austin.

According to city staff, the program has not only helped clean up the city, but has also helped give work to 150 people experiencing homelessness and also moved 22 people into permanent housing. The program is run through The Other Ones Foundation and is coordinated through the Austin Parks and Recreation Department, Austin Resource Recovery, Austin Public Health and the Austin Watershed Protection Department.