Austin's plan to house homeless moves ahead, but questions remain
The Austin City Council's plan to swiftly connect people living unsheltered in certain areas to housing or shelter is moving forward — but key points remain unsettled as the program readies for launch at the end of the month.
On Tuesday, the council received an update on the housing initiative it voted to create in February. The plan is dubbed HEAL — an acronym for Housing-Focused Encampment Assistance Link.
The plan's focus is to find housing or shelter for people living outdoors in four highly trafficked areas the council designated as unsafe for homeless people. Once that's completed, the areas will be marked off-limits to camping, with the plan calling for an array of enforcement tools that don't include citations or criminal penalties.
The first phase will begin at the end of April with an analysis of the four sites and procurement of housing and resources, according to the presentation given by Dianna Grey, the city's homeless strategy officer. It is scheduled to be completed by the end of August with restoration of the encampment areas and with people who were living there fully moved into shelters or housing.
Where will Austin's homeless community go?
Grey did not give the proposed location of the shelter, saying in a memorandum only that it will be centrally located and that the city's staff is in the process of solidifying a contract for the property.
On Wednesday, city spokesman Andy Tate clarified that the recommended site is at an existing city-owned facility and that the contract would be for operations of the facility. Tate declined to give the specific site of the proposed location. The shelter will have about 50 beds, Grey said.
The refusal to give specifics on the planned shelter continues the city's pattern of not releasing locations for proposed properties to serve the homeless population.
In doing so, Austin officials have sparked outrage from residents and business owners who were not aware of the city's plans and have made the case that inviting transients into the area will result in a reduction in safety and property values.
State law does allow cities to withhold disclosing sensitive real estate matters for competitive reasons when negotiating an outside purchase.
Tate did say city staff will reach out to residents in the neighborhood of the proposed shelter prior to proceeding with a recommendation to the city council.
The city's secrecy triggered the filing of two bills in the Legislature that would make this process more transparent.
A bill from Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, would require a city to hold a public hearing prior to purchasing a property to house individuals and to notify every resident within 2 miles of the proposed property.
City spokesman Andy Tate declined to give the specific location of the proposed shelter.
"We can't give further details until negotiations are complete," he said. "This is normal for these sorts of things."
During Tuesday's presentation, little discussion was spent on the potential impact the upcoming citywide election would have on HEAL. On May 1, voters will weigh a ballot proposition that, if approved, would reinstate criminal consequences for camping in public that the City Council repealed two years ago.
Austin voters to consider camping ban
If voters approve the reinstatement, the ban would take effect within days of the election when the council canvasses the results. The upshot would be that the homeless people living in the four high-risk areas designated by HEAL would likely already be gone from there by the time the shelter is prepared for them.
Asked by Council Member Mackenzie Kelly about the impact the vote would have on HEAL, Grey said her work will continue regardless of the results.
"The core work of HEAL, which is outreach engagement housing, goes forward," she said. "I don't see anything on the horizon that would suggest a barrier to us doing outreach and moving into housing or shelter."
In a text message to the American-Statesman, Council Member Ann Kitchen did not address plans for choosing people for the shelter if the camping ban passes.
"The work connecting people to housing will continue under whatever the policy environment is," Kitchen said.
When will unsheltered residents be forced to move?
The first phase targets existing encampments downtown along East Caesar Chavez and the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail as well as east of Interstate 35 at the Terrazas Branch of the Austin Public Library.
The other two encampments are at Menchaca Road and Ben White Boulevard in South Austin and at various spots along U.S. 183 in Northwest Austin.
Grey said people in those encampments will get an "explicit and concrete offer of housing." The process of moving the people will be staggered, and by the end of July residents in all four designated locations should be in the shelter.
People sent to the shelters who end up needing additional support will be linked to permanent supportive housing, of which Austin has a significant shortage.
The preliminary budget for HEAL is $4.3 million — $2.4 million for rapid rehousing, $1.3 million for bridge shelter, $400,000 for outreach and engagement and $200,000 for personal storage.
After residents are moved to shelter, camping will no longer be permitted in the four designated locations. In February, the council made very clear that citations could not be used and directed Grey to come up with an enforcement plan.
That plan includes repurposing the areas with such things as public art installations, restrooms, playgrounds and dog parks. Grey also referenced a transformation of a lot in Louisville as an outdoor event space with food trucks, live music and outdoor movies.
In some cases, she said fencing might be used temporarily to reinforce that the site is no longer accessible.
Editor's note: Relying on information provided by the city, a previous version of this story incorrectly reported that Austin officials were considering purchasing a property to convert into a homeless shelter. The proposed site would be at an existing property already owned by the city.