Texas getting ready to move homeless residents camping beneath Austin highways

An Austin police officer speaks to people gathered on sidewalk in front of the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, or ARCH, in downtown Austin in August. (Photo: Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune)
By  | 

TEXAS TRIBUNE -- The Texas Department of Transportation will give move-out notices to people camping under several state overpasses throughout Austin before cleaning the locations next week, according to a spokesperson for Gov. Greg Abbott.

"These notices are the first step to clear encampments from underpasses throughout the city, while providing those experiencing homelessness with access to resources for services and care," Abbott spokesman John Wittman, said in a statement.

The news, first reported by KXAN, comes three days before the Friday deadline Austin leaders had to show “consequential improvement” in dealing with homeless people camping in or near highly visible places before risking state intervention.

"Governor Abbott has been clear that unless the City of Austin demonstrated improvements to protect public health and safety, the state of Texas would step in to address this crisis," Wittman said. "With today's notice from TxDOT, the Governor is following through on that promise."

Austin City Council member Greg Casar called Abbott's move a "political stunt." He said that the state does little to actually solve homelessness while the city is spending a "record amount of resources" to help people experiencing homelessness.

"He is just moving them from one place to another," Casar said. "We are going to find these persons right up the street. This might serve for a good photo op for the day, but won’t help Texas in the long run."

TxDOT began posting notices Tuesday before cleaning the encampments on Monday. The department will focus on camps under overpasses at Burnet Road and U.S. Highway 183 in North Austin, U.S. Highway 290 and State Highway 71 in South Austin and Interstate 35 between Holly Street and 15th Street near downtown, according to a TxDOT spokesman.

Service providers will visit encampments this week to offer assistance to individuals experiencing homelessness, the spokesman added.

Those displaced will be directed to Austin homeless shelters. It is unclear how the department will force people to move. Wittman said the Austin Police Department or the Texas Department of Public Safety will work with TxDOT.

A city spokesman said the Austin Police Department will not proactively participate in the cleanup, but will respond to calls for service if a crime is reported or state agencies request backup.

The TxDOT spokesman said the department is "still working" on whether or not DPS will participate in the cleanup. He declined to speculate on what would happen if people living in encampments refused to leave.

A flyer that will be posted at the camps says all personal property must be removed by Monday or it will be considered abandoned. The flyer directs people experiencing homelessness to call Integral Care Path Team, The Salvation Army, or the ARCH for help with services.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler has cautioned against clearing encampments unless state leaders have “a housing exit” plan for people affected. The governor's office will work with "a coalition consisting of private sector and faith-based organizations on longer-term solutions," according to a statement.

Eric Samuels, the president and CEO of the nonprofit Texas Homeless Network, said the move is likely to push homeless Texans out of public view while doing little to help them find permanent housing.

"Long-terms solutions are what we need," he said Tuesday. "But in the short term this move is counterproductive."

Juan Pablo Garnham contributed to this report.

Disclosure: Steve Adler, a former Texas Tribune board chairman, has been a financial supporter of the Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.