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Where will Austin's homeless people go? Here's what we know.

Nate Chute
Austin American-Statesman

Questions remain after Austin residents voted in favor of reinstating the city's public camping ban in the May 1 election. Proposition B passed by 15 points, with 57% of voters for and 42% against.

The measure makes public camping a criminal offense in areas not designated by the Parks and Recreation Department. Violators could be subject to a Class C misdemeanor.

Where those experiencing homelessness in the city will go in order to avoid criminal charges remains on the table.

Voter breakdown:Austin's camping ban had bipartisan support, even as east-west divide persisted

We'll be updating this story as we learn more, but here's what we know now:

When does Austin's camping ban go into effect? How will it be enforced?

The camping ban is expected to go into effect after the city's election results are certified on May 11.

The Austin Police Department's enforcement of the ban will roll out in four phases, with the first starting with community engagement and education, and will include issuing verbal warnings for the first 30 days.

In Phase 2, police will begin issuing a writing warning and issuing Class C misdemeanor citations punishable by a fine. This phase, which will begin on June 13, will also last 30 days.

An American flag flies in a homeless camp under U.S. 183 at Great Hills Trail on Friday April 23, 2021.

By July 11, Phase 3 will start. It will include the possibility for arrests and encampment clearances in areas not meeting compliance after citations have been issued may be conducted by law enforcement.

Orders to vacate campsites at this time will include 72 hours of advanced notice. Arrests of those with warrants for unrelated offenses could face jail time. Others who are arrested for non-compliance will be connected to a case management program at the Downtown Community Court.

In the final phase, citations and arrests will continue as the city looks to direct individuals toward shelters and other housing options.

A statewide public camping ban? Austin's homeless camping debate also playing out in Texas Legislature

Will there be Austin-owned encampments?

City Council Member Kathie Tovo authored a proposal to create city-authorized encampments that could be used lawfully by people experiencing homelessness in early May. Tovo said she could see the city opening multiple encampments, perhaps one in each of the 10 council districts.

But by mid-May, city staff prepared a list of eighteen public parks on a preliminary list of 45 possible locations for city-sanctioned encampments to shelter Austin's homeless population. The list was shared with the Austin City Council on May 18.

Voters called for such an encampment in 2019 after the council voted to allow homeless camping. At the time, city staffers expressed concern about cost and the difficultly of maintaining that space. 

The sanctioned campsite would not be the first in the city. "Camp Esperanza" is a state-owned campsite operated by the nonprofit the Other Ones Foundation in Southeast Austin and has been around since 2019. Another state-owned campsite in Austin, nicknamed  "Camp R.A.T.T," was taken over by ATX Helps in 2020, too.

Hotels, motels and shelter plans

The City Council has purchased four hotels or motels to house those experiencing homelessness. They include the following:

  • February 2021: Approved $9.5 million purchase of Candlewood Suites near U.S. 183 and the Texas 45 toll road.
  • January 2021: Approved $6.7 million of Texas Bungalows Hotel & Suites in North Austin:
  • May 2020: Approved $8.3 million purchase of Country Inn & Suites near St. Johns Ave
  • May 2020: Approved $8.4 million purchase of former Rodeway Inn near Oltorf St and I-35

The most recent purchase is currently facing a legal challenge by the owner of a nearby hotel. 

The Rodeway Inn location was recently named by Austin homeless strategy officer Dianna Grey as the proposed location for the first facility to be utilized as a bridge shelter program by the city council's HEAL Initiative. 

A bridge shelter provides a temporary, transitional place to stay, often when an individual has been offered a permanent housing intervention, but access to that permanent housing is still being arranged. The plans for the newly named Southbridge shelter are subject to city council approval. 

Who's paying for it? Austin's mayor pushes Travis County to help fund city's homelessness initiatives

HEAL, an acronym for Housing-Focused Encampment Assistance Link, plans to find housing or shelter for people living outdoors at four highly trafficked areas that the council deems to be unsafe by August. Where those locations will be remains to be seen.

"The work connecting people to housing will continue under whatever the policy environment is,"  Council Member Mackenzie Kelly said.

Nonprofits growing permanent housing offerings

A longer-term housing plan calls for the city to work with a coalition of groups from the nonprofit and private sectors to acquire 3,000 additional units in the next three years.

One example is Caritas of Austin, which is collaborating with the Vecino Group on a supportive housing development planned to open this fall in North Austin.

The development would provide up to 171 residents with access to an apartment, amenities and supportive living programs like employment services and mental and physical health programs.

“Caritas has a 97% success rate in not returning to homelessness when you support them in housing,” CEO and president Jo Kathryn Quinn said. “We know that not one size fits all. The programs (needed) for each person is different because every person is different and has a different set of needs.”  

Another non-profit, Mobile Loves & Fishes, plans to add 1,400 homes to Community First Village in southeast Austin, more than quadrupling its neighborhood.

What do those experiencing homelessness in Austin say?

In the wake of the election, the majority of individuals experiencing homelessness who spoke with the Statesman said they would leave if police told them to.

Many said they make take their tents to camp in wooded areas, while others said they would return to encampments due to a lack of options.

"I'm fearful people will migrate away, but I don't know where," said Laura Martinez who previously camped at a median before social worker connected her with social services. "How do people expect others to change and be secure if they can't have stability?"