Austin city staff request more time, council direction on homeless encampment selection process

Staff will continue planning for the campground strategy through June and July, and the first site could open in August. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)
Staff will continue planning for the campground strategy through June and July, and the first site could open in August. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)

Staff will continue planning for the campground strategy through June and July, and the first site could open in August. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)

Updated June 1 7:16 p.m.

A homelessness briefing from Austin city staff during City Council's June 1 work session centered on both the challenges of producing a final designated campground list, and a breakdown of how the city could spend around $84 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding on homeless strategies and services. Council is likely to meet for an in-depth discussion of the city's exploration of sanctioned homeless campgrounds within the next week in order to finalize members' site preferences before their summer recess.

Kimberly McNeeley, director of the Austin Parks and Recreation Department, first ran through the wide range of criteria council had asked staff to consider when selecting a campsite. With those guidelines in place, and the likely signing into law of House Bill 1925's statewide ban on using parkland for homeless encampments, McNeeley said staff could only produce a single possibility out of a preliminary shortlist of dozens.

"We did not have pieces of land that really qualified meeting all of the criteria that we had heard in the feedback, which basically eliminated all pieces of land except for maybe two pieces of land that could be available. ... If you want to really remove parkland from this conversation, there’s really only one piece of land that even seems viable and it would require some mitigation in order for that piece of public land to be able to be used," she said.

McNeeley also requested further guidance from council members to refine the selection process and possibly broaden the scope of city staff's search and said staff would move into a public engagement process to hear from area residents as well if any city-owned locations are eventually targeted in earnest.

With the search as currently constructed appearing to fizzle out, Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison questioned the mid-May release of a preliminary campsite list she said went on to "scare everybody" given staff's pruning of the property index in the weeks since—which City Manager Spencer Cronk had attributed in part to the timeline and direction laid out council's initial resolution on the campground issue. She also expressed frustration at a perceived communication disconnect with the city manager's office throughout the process,

"It’s discouraging to feel like I don’t have an appropriate response to our constituents who are saying, ‘Why does it feel like you also just found out?’ And the response, in all honesty, is because I did just find out," Harper-Madison said. "I don’t think it offers our constituents much in the way of the ability to be confident that we are representing them well when it’s pretty clear that we don’t have the kind of clear communication with the city manager’s office that we should have.”

In addition to the camping proposal, Homelessness Strategy Officer Dianna Grey said staff are also looking at the possibility of expanding existing shelter capacity and transitioning pandemic Protection Lodges to bridge shelters to ease the capacity burden on potential future campsites. Grey also gave a brief overview of staff's spending plan for around $84 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding that could be dedicated to homeless services and housing systems, although officials said they wanted to maintain that money for longer-term efforts rather than pouring it into the short-term "emergency" response to enforcement of Proposition B's public camping ban through temporary shelter expansions and sanctioned campsites.

"We’ve seen what happens in other cities that tried to do that," Mayor Steve Adler said. "They don’t make any real ground on dealing with the challenge of homelessness in those cities and they end up having to spend all of their money on something that just basically just preserves and watches their challenge grow over time. We have to be careful not to do that here."

With the homelessness briefing stretching to the end of their June 1 work session, council members also agreed that a specially-called session on the encampment issue will likely be needed later this week or early next in order to consider it in their June 10 regular meeting, City Council's last before its extended summer break stretching to late July. In a June 1 memo, staff also requested that council refine their criteria for the use of city-owned properties by June 10 to broaden their search.

Posted June 1 1:02 p.m.

Austin's next steps in planning for sanctioned homeless encampments are coming into focus with a potential summer deadline for the launch of at least one camp, although city staff are still grappling with where such sites may eventually be located.

In a June 1 memo to city officials, Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey wrote that the public site selection process has hit a wall due in part to feedback provided by members of City Council limiting which city-owned properties could be eligible to house camps. Among council's issues with the 40-plus locations provided by staff in a preliminary list in May was the inclusion of a range of city parks, which officials have since said were unlikely to ever be pursued.

With most parkland appearing to be unavailable and other city properties already tapped for separate uses at present or in the near future, Grey said staff's adherence to criteria provided by council "severely limits" which locations could fit the city's needs. In addition to internal legal and zoning considerations that remain under review, she said some sites' current usage both by the city and members of the public, proximity to schools and environmental concerns have proven to be barriers in identifying any suitable candidates so far.

More planning time and guidance are needed to develop a shortlist for possible campgrounds, Grey said, and a request for additional direction from council by June 10 was forwarded by staff to refine their site search and confirm how the program may be funded.

If staff's questions are answered next week, Grey said the evaluation of city-owned and private campsite options is expected to continue through June. Planning will then move forward in July with the leasing of private sites, if any have been identified outside of the city's own holdings, and the launch of a bidding process to contract campground services for two years of temporary operations. Grey said staff would then look to negotiate those service agreements and have at least one campsite up and running in August.

While staff pushes forward on the campsite identification process, shorter-term steps toward securing housing for the homeless will move forward this summer as well.

Due to the recent lowering of the area's COVID-19 threat level, Grey said Austin's shelters may see their capacity limits upped and the city's leased motels will transition from their use as protection lodges during the pandemic to bridge shelters. Shelter capacity could be increased, and bridge shelters could be occupied as early as July with additional shelter conversions to follow.

Grey said staff recommended spending $4.7 million of Austin's federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to cover related sheltering, services, staffing and nonprofit capacity increases.

A new report on the city's short-term homeless housing efforts, including the designated campsites and potential partnerships for developing new temporary housing with "tiny home structures," is due back July 1.


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