The shift from Phase 2 to Phase 3 of the city's camping ban implementation will mainly focus on citing public campers who have already received written warnings from Austin Police Department officers. The period, which is scheduled to run from July 11-Aug. 7, could escalate to arrests for those camping in "dangerous" areas such as those near major roadways or spaces at risk of fire or flooding.
Ahead of this weekend's move into Phase 3, the Austin Public Safety Commission on July 6 heard from several city and community representatives who spoke on the state of Austin's homelessness crisis. Among the speakers July 6 was Bill Brice, the Downtown Austin Alliance's vice president of investor relations, who shared information on the advocacy group's work tracking homelessness downtown and the topic of to where homeless individuals can move.
"This is a primary concern of the Downtown Austin Alliance, those we represent, people that own and manage and occupy properties in downtown Austin, particularly among our visitors industry," Brice said. "There are still a significant number of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness. I think the key question that must be answered is ... Where can people go? And we ... still have not a plan to answer that question."
Brice also presented data on unsheltered homelessness in the city's core, which he said was collected by around two dozen staff and volunteers during overnight counts this spring. According to the organization's tracking, the downtown district—roughly bounded by I-35, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, San Antonio Street north of Lady Bird Lake, in addition to a portion of the southern waterfront along Riverside Drive east of First Street—was home to just over 800 unsheltered residents both in May and as of June 17.
Those totals factor in additional people for any tents or vehicles counted, which Brice also said left some "room for error" in the alliance's counts.
While the group reported little change in the overall unsheltered population between the past two months, with 813 counted in May compared to an estimate of 808 in June, a 35% increase in people on the streets was accompanied by a 27% drop in those living in tents or other dwellings. The locations of unsheltered residents were also reported as mainly in eastern and south central downtown, while most tents were found on or near I-35 and East Cesar Chavez Street.
Following Brice's report to the public safety board, APD Lt. Lawrence Davis on July 6 also provided an update on police operations through the first two rounds of Proposition B enforcement. While Davis said the department has worked to avoid punishing those experiencing homelessness and connect campers with social services when possible, with success in scores of cases so far, he also said the top lingering issue for officers and the city overall is the lack of a housing solution to Proposition B's new laws.
“We had 290 people that were, if we had a place for them to go, were willing to come into voluntary compliance," Davis said of APD's first rounds of enforcement. "The elephant in the room is, hey, where do we tell folks to go? And so if we’re going to ask them to leave, we ought to have a place to take them.”
Places to go
That question is one on which city staff remain focused on as well, although no firm strategy is yet in place. In a July 1 memo to city officials, Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey and Kimberly McNeeley, director of the Austin Parks and Recreation Department, detailed where their planning process for sanctioned camping and other immediate housing options stands months after Proposition B went into effect.
While the concept of designated encampments for people experiencing homelessness was first floated earlier this spring, staff have not yet confirmed whether the city will be able to open such facilities in time for the fourth and final phase of Proposition B implementation beginning in August. In their early July report, Grey and McNeeley said the campsite selection process—detailed in public in May with a list of dozens of possible city-owned site options—had been expanded to run nearly 80 potential locations through qualifiers outlined by City Council.
That new review has resulted in a total of two feasible encampment options, which staff said could cost the city an estimated $3 million combined, not including utilities. Grey and NcNeeley did not share where those sites are but said that following further review by the city's legal team both locations will be revealed and put through a community feedback process.
In addition to the formalized camps, staff are also looking to grow the city's homeless shelter capacity to potentially bring hundreds of people off the streets temporarily by August, depending on COVID-19 restrictions. Shelter expansions include: the recent opening of dozens of additional beds at the Southbridge shelter, restoring pre-pandemic capacity in existing congregate shelters and converting a COVID-19 Protection Lodge facility into a bridge shelter. That final option, made possible by the declining usage of ProLodges this year, will take place at a former hotel off I-35 in City Council District 9 at a cost of $4.2 million, Grey and NcNeeley said.
“We’ve said all along we will not lose sight of the need to create real solutions to help people get back into permanent housing with the services they need to stay there—but we also recognize the immediate need for a safe place to sleep until that happens,” Grey said in a statement. “The creation of a second bridge shelter, and efforts to increase the community’s emergency shelter capacity, demonstrate our commitment to providing alternatives for people experiencing homelessness in Austin.”
Other housing possibilities that are also now under review include the selection of city-owned parking lots to be used for overnight parking by people experiencing homelessness in their cars, estimated to cost $80,000 per site; the rapid construction of individual "tiny homes" at the two designated encampments, estimated to cost between $5,000 and $10,000 per building; and the purchase of temporary Sprung shelters, or shelters that are temporary and have climate control, at designated encampments, estimated to cost between $6,700 and $320,000 per facility including purchase and construction.
Along with those staff-identified options on the table, Grey and McNeeley also said the city remains open to working with other governments, businesses and and nonprofits on housing. In addition to any public engagement solicited as part of a location selection process, the city may also open up an official pitching and bidding process for additional project proposals this year.
An update from staff covering the two final sanctioned encampment locations, parking lot sites and shelter expansion is now expected July 22, less than two weeks into Proposition B's third enforcement phase. City Council remains on its summer meeting break through late July, although officials will soon move into group budget discussions with members set to convene for their next standard work session July 27 and regular meeting July 29.