Homeless camps have become a fixture under highways such as I-35.
Homeless encampments under Austin’s highways will be cleared beginning Nov. 4, according to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s office, which said Oct. 29 that the governor was “following through on his promise” to step in and address Austin’s homelessness situation.
The Texas Department of Transportation will be responsible for clearing out the camps. To prepare the Austinites living under the city’s highways, department officials were dispatched to the encampments to hand out notices regarding the scheduled clearout. Abbott’s office said the move comes after the governor determined Austin has not done enough to address its own homelessness situation.
Earlier this month, Abbott offered a Nov. 1 deadline for Austin to make “consequential improvement” in its homelessness situation before he moved to dispatch state resources.
“Governor Abbott has been clear that unless the City of Austin demonstrated improvements to protect public health and safety, the state of Texas would step in to address this crisis,” said John Wittman, press secretary for Abbott, in a statement. “With today’s notice from TxDOT, the Governor is following through on his promise.”
The initial threat from the governor came after the months of controversy that followed Austin City Council's decision to lift bans on public camping, sitting and lying down—bans that directly impacted the city's homeless population. On Oct. 17, City Council voted to amend its decision and reinstitute some restrictions on where people could camp and in what situations they could sit or lie down in public rights of way.
The state notices announcing the clearing-out, marked with the official TxDOT letterhead, said any items left behind at camps under Austin’s highways by Nov. 4 would be “considered abandoned and removed.” The department directed encampment residents to use TxDOT's “Be Safe Be Seen” reflective drawstring bags to pack up “important items, such as documents and medications.” The “Be Safe Be Seen” program launched back in 2017 and was aimed at making the homeless more visible to passing cars after multiple pedestrian fatalities on I-35.
According to the notices, TxDOT will collect items considered abandoned and put them in a 30-day lost-and-found so that people can come back and pick up any items they may have left behind. TxDOT also included addresses and phone numbers for a variety of homelessness service providers, with which those experiencing homelessness can get in touch.
“These notices are the first step to clear encampments from underpasses throughout the city, while providing those experiencing homelessness with access to resources for services and care,” Wittman said. “In addition to these short-term services, the Office of the Governor is working with a coalition consisting of private sector and faith-based organizations on longer-term solutions.”
The statement also said the Austin Chamber of Commerce would spearhead a private-sector effort to meet the needs of the city’s homeless population. Mike Rollins, president of the Austin Chamber of Commerce, confirmed the organization’s role, but provided little detail regarding the coordination efforts.
“We all can do more to solve homelessness in Austin and to help those who are experiencing it,” Rollins said. “The business community has been working with faith-based groups, nonprofits and both our state and local governments to focus on the gaps in the system and help the people who need it the most. We will continue to focus on working with as many partners as possible to deliver compassionate solutions to homelessness in Austin.”
Chamber spokesperson Danielle Trevino said more details will emerge in the coming weeks. The news comes after months of pleading for assistance from the private sector by city officials, who repeated over and over again that the public sector alone could not carry the burden of ending homelessness in the community.
Although Abbott referred to the effort as a clearing of encampments, TxDOT spokesperson Diann Hodges, emphasized that they were “clean-ups, not clear-outs.” Hodges said TxDOT will essentially be resuming its role in cleaning up under Austin’s highways, a duty the state foisted onto the city and its public works department earlier this year. Hodges said law enforcement officials will accompany TxDOT workers as they clean up the camps, just as they have in the past.
Editor's note: This story was updated to correctly attribute a quote from Mike Rollins, president of the Austin Chamber of Commerce.
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