During a City Council work session briefing on shelter and housing strategy for people experiencing homelessness, Ellis announced her and Harper-Madison's desires to see encampment planning paused in favor of more permanent options. Staff last week released details on two city-owned sites at 3511 Manor Road and 4011 Convict Hill Road, located in council districts 1 and 8, respectively, which Ellis said "caught a few of us by surprise" and prompted a wave of resident feedback and internal deliberations leading to the July 27 announcement.
“After a week of extremely difficult conversations, lots of research into best practices and a good deal of reflection, the mayor pro tem and I agree that we should table this strategy for the time being," Ellis said. "We believe our city’s limited dollars and time would be better spent on moving folks into permanent housing rather than the Band-Aid tactics when we should be focusing on real, long-term strategies that we’ve seen work.”
Harper-Madison, who was not present in person during the work session, issued a joint statement with Ellis soon after its adjournment pointing to limited city funds and the need for permanent housing as factors in their decision.
"This year through the American Rescue Plan and our upcoming city budget, we are making historic investments to combat homelessness—let’s put those dollars to good use by spending them wisely on getting folks the services they need and into permanent housing," the pair said. "We both have a long track record of advocating for abundant affordable housing, and for practical and humane pathways to housing for those living without it. Let’s table the idea of encampments and stay the course on executing already identified and proven solutions.”
Ellis also said local nonprofits such as Mobile Loaves and Fishes' Community First Village and The Other Ones Foundation's Camp Esperanza could continue similar work the city is looking to take on. She said Austin's strategy should remain geared toward a push for permanent housing and services rather than branching out into similar ventures for tiny homes or encampments.
“At this time, the tactic seems to be way more complicated than the benefits that we’d be able to realize. Instead, I’d like us to take a pause and stay the course on the solutions that we know will work," Ellis said.
During the council briefing, Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey did not take a stance on whether the encampment process should continue but did share additional concerns with council about its possible path forward.
Grey said a longer-than-expected planning timeline could run up against a statewide camping ban passed this spring, given its provision that any city setting up a sanctioned campsite would need to seek state approval to stand it up once the law is in effect Sept. 1. She also cautioned against moving forward without resident engagement opportunities, which would extend the planning period, and noted the increased amount of time and money the city expects the initiative could take up.
“While we certainly want to be investing in crisis services and crisis beds for this population; it is not free," Grey said. “Particularly because of the newness of this model, because of what it conjures for people in terms of the idea of what undesignated encampments ... there really would need to be a more extensive community engagement process before we think we could move forward. That in and of itself also has implications in terms of staff time and resources."
Council took no official action on designated campsite planning during its July 27 session, and Mayor Steve Adler and other council members said they plan to revisit the topic in-depth during their July 29 meeting.
The July 29 forum will see council consider other homelessness-related items, including a $1.54 million contract extension for shelter at a Central Austin Days Inn hotel and nearly $917,000 for bridge housing services through local nonprofits. Council may also direct City Manager Spencer Cronk to further engage with the Austin community to move along the three-year, 3,000-person housing goal of this spring's Summit to Address Unsheltered Homelessness.