Austin officials: Better communication among depts. could help prevent future homeless camp fire

Assistant City Manager Christopher Shorter said an internal work group is forming so service providers, public safety officials and city departments can exchange information and strategies to address Austin's homelessness challenges. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)
Assistant City Manager Christopher Shorter said an internal work group is forming so service providers, public safety officials and city departments can exchange information and strategies to address Austin's homelessness challenges. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)

Assistant City Manager Christopher Shorter said an internal work group is forming so service providers, public safety officials and city departments can exchange information and strategies to address Austin's homelessness challenges. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)

Fire officials said they had known about the homeless encampment under the US 183 frontage road near Cameron Road that caught fire Feb. 3 for years, as did homeless service providers. A day after the blaze, the director of a city department leading efforts on homeless camp cleanups said, before the fire, he had no idea the encampment existed.

That disconnect needs to be fixed, City Council members said during their Feb. 4 meeting, and departments needs to better communicate on their knowledge of the city’s homelessness challenges.

Ken Snipes, director of Austin Resource Recovery, a lead agency on storage and cleanups around homeless camps in the city’s new Homelessness Service Division, said although service providers such as Integral Care and the Homelessness Outreach Street Team as well as firefighters had thorough knowledge of the encampment, the area was “completely new” to him.

Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, a former Austin firefighter, said even back when she was in the fire department during the mid-2000s, she remembered regularly responding to homeless encampments in areas near Hwy. 360 and those similar to where the camp fire occurred Feb. 3. Garza said it was for medical calls—which the fire department often responds to—or small fires. She said the fire department would know where many camps are.

District 1 Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison said the “boots on the ground”—emergency responders such as medics and firefighters—should be brought to the table in discussing the city’s homeless challenges and coordinating responses to homeless encampments.


A spokesperson from the city’s watershed protection department, which coordinates homeless encampment cleanups, said the department was notified of the campsite’s scale Jan. 31, only days before the fire broke out. They first received 311 calls about trash along the nearby Buttermilk Branch Creek and referred the site to the Texas Department of Transportation. However, the watershed protection department has determined it is the city’s responsibility to clean up and is working with the Austin Police Department on a cleanup plan.

Assistant City Manager Christopher Shorter, who is leading the city’s homelessness service division, told City Council on Feb. 4 that enhanced communication among departments is a priority, and the division has set up an internal working group to bring together service providers, emergency responders and city departments to share information and strategies around the city’s homelessness challenges.

The homeless camp fire broke out around 8 a.m. along the frontage road of US 183 near Cameron Road on Feb. 3. No one was reported injured. Fire officials said the camp is euphemistically referred to as “The Catacombs.” They found electric generators, kitchen appliances, divided rooms and makeshift doors. Officials said the site likely housed between 10 and 100 people.


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