Leaders with Save Austin Now, the political action committee behind Proposition B, renewed their criticism of Austin officials' handling of the proposition's enforcement May 18 in the wake of a city briefing on possible designated campground locations.
Save Austin Now's co-founders Matt Mackowiak and Cleo Petricek had previously spoken out against the city's plan to gradually phase in enforcement of Proposition B's ordinances over the course of the spring and summer, rather than immediately after certification of the May 1 election. With the May 18 release of a preliminary list of designated campsite locations, the pair once again accused city leadership of working around Austin voters' desires with a framework that could see camps set up on city parkland or at public activity centers.
“What the voters said was clear. If we need to be even more clear: First, no homeless encampment should be designated within walking distance of a pre-K, primary, middle, or high school. Second, no city park or recreation center, which are used disproportionately by low income working Austinites, should be turned into a permanent homeless encampment," Petricek and Mackowiak said in a statement.
Reservations around using city parks for homeless camping facilities were also shared by some members of city council during their May 18 work session, and the city's final list of camp locations may include far fewer sites than were listed in staff's preliminary overview. Whether a sanctioned camping program would use public space, private land or a mix of both also remains to be seen as the search for site options continues at City Hall, a process that will continue to involve feedback from both council and members of the public this year.
Updated May 18, 7:36 p.m.
A May 18 meeting between Austin City Council members and city staff provided the first details on how sanctioned campgrounds for individuals experiencing homelessness may be implemented and also served as a springboard for council and the broader community to voice where such sites could eventually be located.
Discussions over the campground concept are continuing based on council's direction to explore midrange temporary housing options for the city's homeless as enforcement of Proposition B ordinances is phased in over the coming months. While staff members presented a lineup of more than 40 city-owned parks, utility facilities and other properties that could house designated encampments in the near future during the May 18 briefing, it appears that list will likely be cut down and amended through council and resident feedback as the planning process gathers steam into the summer.
"The lists we have provided are only a snapshot of the sites where we have done the initial analysis that council requested. These sites are not final, and the list will most certainly change. Some locations may come off, and others may be added, as part of an ongoing examination of potential sites," city spokesperson Andy Tate said in an email.
In line with a council resolution passed earlier this month, staff's preliminary list of campground locations encompasses all 10 City Council districts. Kimberly McNeeley, director of the Austin Parks and Recreation Department, said the 45 properties shared May 18 had been trimmed from more than 70 initially identified as possibilities before considerations related to safety and size narrowed staff's focus.
As those 40-plus sites remain under review by city staff, several council members expressed reservations about whether many of the properties—particularly parkland and recreation centers—would be suitable for sanctioned campgrounds. McNeeley also said establishing camps in such spaces would likely mean a restriction in amenities or programming available to Austinites while camps remain in place.
District 3 Council Member Pio Renteria said he has concerns over the fairness of the program's reach, citing his experience with the city's prolonged process of selecting hotel sites to house the homeless that has not yet served each council district equally. To garner local support and successfully service the homeless of District 3 particularly, he stressed the need for buy-in across Austin for a successful rollout.
"If we’re going to have a campsite in everybody’s district, then we need to make sure that everybody’s district gets one, and then it concentrates those homeless that live in their district to give them an opportunity to go into a campsite so we can work with them and transition them out to permanent housing," Renteria said.
The scope of campsites' operations may also prove a sticking point as the program takes shape. Based on a May 14 memo from McNeeley and Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey, annual costs of at least $1.39 million for an encampment of 50 people and $1.87 million for a 100-person camp are estimated based on the need for staff, lighting, restrooms, showers, laundry, storage, food and trash services. District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen said some services could be reduced to lower costs and suggested alternative service options for homeless individuals be kept in place to prevent encampments from supplanting Austin's broader, long-term homeless housing strategies.
Alongside the question of funding, staff and council members said the permanence of camps is another challenge to plan for with Grey noting the setting of a clear timeline as a key consideration during the current planning process. With possible issues ranging from fire to disease breakouts also in mind, she said clear living standards should be set in advance of any campground launches.
"Communities don't do this as an ideal solution; they do this when the situation sort of requires it in one way or another given the alternatives. And so there are absolutely challenges associated with it," Grey said. "Being really clear about what the guidelines are in terms of maintaining health and safety has to be really our priority."
Ongoing evaluation of campsite locations will continue this spring ahead of staff's next update on the process scheduled for early June. The development of the draft campsite list could expand to include new properties owned by private interests in addition to city lands and with further direction from council members' offices and Austin residents on which spaces are the best fit for their communities. City Manager Spencer Cronk said public feedback may be directed through a designated email box or similar outlet to be launched as early as this week.
Posted May 18, 3:16 p.m.
The first step in Austin's consideration of designated campgrounds for the homeless has resulted in the selection of more than 40 city-owned properties as possible camp locations.
The list of dozens of city properties spread throughout Austin's 10 City Council districts was compiled based on City Council's May 6 directive to explore the option of designated campsites as enforcement of Proposition B's camping ban eases into effect this spring and summer. Staff members are expected to provide council with a briefing on the campgrounds during a work session May 18 and released an overview of 45 sites now under review at the city ahead of their briefing. The list has been whittled down from more than 70 initial options and includes a range of city parks, vacant lots, and utility and public works facilities.
Properties under consideration by staff at this time are required to fit several health- and safety-oriented requirements including proximity to water sources and vehicle access points as well as distance from buildings, infrastructure, waterways and areas at risk of wildfire, among other criteria. Additional safety requirements such as cooking and fire restrictions would be enforced at any camps after they are established.
According to the May 18 staff presentation, the campground list will be further refined through ongoing staff review and community engagement. Additional locations may also come under review as the selection process continues, and a second staff report on sanctioned campsites is expected to be sent to city officials June 2.