Multiple people camping around Austin’s downtown homeless shelter over the summer told Community Impact Newspaper that if the city tried to clear their camps away they feared there would be a lot of trouble and possibly an “uprising” because there was nowhere else for them to go and feel safe.

The Austin Police Department escorted city crews Nov. 4 as they cleared out camps around the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless at Seventh and Neches streets, enforcing new rules set by City Council on Oct. 17 against camping, sitting and lying down around homeless shelters. Chief Brian Manley said there were no “incidents” during the event.

The city program is unrelated to the Texas Department of Transportation clearing out camps under highway overpasses that began on Nov. 4, which Gov. Greg Abbott announced the previous week, saying he was "following through on his promise" to address Austin's homelessness situation.

Aside from the city and its homelessness service providers’ effort to inform those outside the ARCH of the new rules ahead of Nov. 4’s scheduled clearance, the city had also been canvassing the population for three weeks as part of its new Guided Path pilot program. The program focuses the city’s crisis response system and resources solely on the people outside the ARCH in an attempt to better assess the system’s strengths and weaknesses.

Greg McCormack, who is intimately involved with Guided Path as the executive director of ARCH operator Front Steps Inc., said he felt confident most, if not all, the people who were moved from outside the ARCH on Monday morning had been engaged by the pilot program and offered resources. However, with the ARCH and Salvation Army brimming at capacity and no new expansions in city shelter space, McCormack said he felt the city was still falling short.

“We still don’t have all the resources we need; there’s still that question of ‘Where do we go?’” McCormack said. “We haven’t really done a great job at answering that.”

Guided Path in action

Lori Pampilo Harris, Austin’s homelessness strategy officer, provided updates Nov. 4 on how the Guided Path pilot was operating so far. The city engaged with 99 people total outside the ARCH. Out of those 99, 76 have been enrolled or referred for enrollment into case management services such as housing, mental health treatment or financial assistance. McCormack said 27 accepted a spot in the ARCH; however, some have already left.

Seven of those 76 in case management have either been housed or are moving into nonshelter housing this week, city staff said. The remaining 23 people have not been referred to case management because of a lack of resource capacity.

Although the Guided Path pilot is focusing the city’s crisis response system on one area and one population, McCormack said they are operating without any additional resources or funding.

“I think we’re stretching the service providers pretty thin [with this program],” McCormack said. “I’m hearing other people are not getting access to the services because [resources are tied up in this program].”

Amid some of his concern over resources, McCormack said he is confident that if they can prove the merits of the pilot, City Council would be ready to step up and provide more money and resources to grow the program. Pampilo Harris lauded the program’s high rate of success in service enrollment and its ability to already place seven people in nonshelter housing or on a clear path to it. However, she said housing and shelter resources remain thin. A city spokesperson said it is far too early to gauge whether the program will be successful or is scalable, but it is clear progress has been made.

When APD escorted crews in clearing homeless encampments Nov. 4, they worked on the area immediately outside the ARCH’s walls as well as the surrounding blocks that fell within City Council’s boundaries prohibiting public camping, sitting and lying down. Manley said crews interacted with 156 total people who were in violation of the new rules, 65 of which willingly identified themselves to police.

Manley said in accordance with the ordinance, APD and the city’s service providers must able to offer nonshelter housing to the 65 identified people before police could cite them as violating the law.