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.
By Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following two years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Su


MOST RECENT

Neil Vickers, ACC executive vice president
Austin Community College approves $416.11 million budget for FY 2020-21, defers salary increases

The budget does not include staff raises, but raises will be re-evaluated in the fall.

Travis County is approaching Stage 5 risk with 69 new hospitalizations July 6. (Community Impact staff)
Travis County reports 7 new coronavirus deaths July 6

Travis County is appoaching Stage 5 risk with 69 new hospitalizations July 6 and 64.6 per day this past week.

A photo of two women walking on a trail
Travis County reopens some parks after holiday weekend, warns more closures could come

Seventeen Travis County parks will reopen following Fourth of July weekend closures.

Austin Community College President and CEO Richard Rhodes
Austin Community College resumes some in-person classes July 6

The district is continuing to offer most classes online, but some classes have resumed in-person activities.

Pharmacist Emily Smith opens a cooler for a patient to place their self-swab coronavirus test at a Walmart drive-thru testing site in McKinney on June 29. (Shelby Tauber/The Texas Tribune)
Poll says Texans' hopes for quick return to pre-coronavirus life are fading

Texans remain focused on the coronavirus pandemic and are less optimistic about returning the state to normal quickly, according to polling by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller recently backed a movement calling for the reopening of winery and distillery tasting rooms and brewery and brewpub taprooms. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Texas Agriculture Commissioner joins voices calling for reopening of tasting rooms, taprooms

In a letter to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller said demand from distilleries and breweries provides an important revenue stream to the state's farmers.

Rodney Redes
With its first signing, Austin FC looks to develop a young forward

With the beginning of its inaugural season less than a year out, professional soccer club Austin FC has officially begun building its roster.

Cheba Hut opened in Austin on June 22. (Courtesy Cheba Hut)
Cheba Hut opens first Austin location on The Drag

This is the first of several planned Texas locations for the marijuana-themed sub franchise, which started in 1998 in Colorado.

Volunteers help load food at an event hosted by the Central Texas Food Bank at Del Valle High School in April. (Courtesy Central Texas Food Bank)
Central Texas Food bank announces four drives in July

Families in need can pick up free produce, milk, protein and shelf-stable items, as available, on four dates.

Travis County added 670 new coronavirus cases July 4-5.
Austin metro COVID-19 hospitalizations rise to 446 after holiday weekend

Travis County added 670 new coronavirus cases July 4-5.

Overall in Travis County there has been a total of 10,695 cases since mid-March.. (Community Impact Newspaper staff)
Travis County adds 571 COVID-19 cases; new restriction put in place ahead of holiday weekend

Overall in Travis County there has been a total of 10,695 cases since mid-March.