Austin's homeless dilemma moves back to front burner

Homeless encampments continue to grow in Austin.

In some spots, along with tents and tarps, wooden structures and vehicles are now being used as shelter. Pictures posted on social media and obtained by FOX 7 show trash throughout a camp along Onion Creek.

The homeless dilemma essentially went unchecked for several months and was put on the back burner because of the presidential election and the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s on the front burner now,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who told FOX 7 that the initiative to buy hotels and other properties to house the homeless with no treatment requirement was sidetracked by COVID-19. However, the initiative is now on again.

RELATED: Point in Time count data shows 45 percent increase in Austin homeless population

“What we find is, if we can get them into housing, then those kinds of programs have a much better chance of taking hold which is why the first question has to be, I’m going to get you off the street, re you willing to move into a place where you ave your own room and own key, and we find most everybody will do that so long as they are not being asked to agree to something that quite frankly they don’t have the capacity to be able to agree to it,” explained Adler.

What to do with the people who don’t want to take that offer, that want to stay on the street, is a dilemma, but the mayor believes that group is manageable.

RELATED: Austin launches program to provide storage for homeless community

‘It’s a relatively small number, so the focus right now has to be getting the 90% of people who will. Move off the streets into homes, and that’s where our focus needs to be,” said Adler.

Clean-up of the camps continue by city public works crews. Sixty-two underpass locations are targeted for November and about the same number in December. Officials are stressing that people and their belongings are not being removed.

There are also 29 locations for free garbage pick-up as part of the violet bag program.

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“If we are cleaning up the camps, why are we putting into place rules to ensure there are not camps in the first place,” said 
former Austin City Council member Ellen Troxclair.

The focus, according to Troxclair, should be more on job programs. “Whether it is cleaning up graffiti, cleaning up our parks, that provides them the dignity of work and some money to help get back on their feet, but what is not the answer is making it easy and comfortable, for these people to think that this is a good way forward for their lives," she said.

It's been a little more than a year now since the Austin City Council rescinded the ban on camping in public places.

RELATED: Coalition seeks to reinstate Austin's homeless camping bans

A group called Save Austin Now tried to get a petition to reinstate the ban on the November ballot, but city officials rejected the petition after rejecting a number of signatures. A new petition drive is being rebooted to have a public vote in May.

Voters may be able to send a signal before then. In December, two city council runoff elections will be held. 

RELATED: In Austin City Council races, three winners, two runoffs ahead


“So at that point, we will really know how strongly people feel about this, but I think the frustration and anger absolutely fueled a forced runoff for candidates that were otherwise expected to win, almost without a runoff,” said Troxclair.

Councilman Greg Casar believes the message has already been sent. He played a big role in repealing the camping ban and easily won reelection. Casar told FOX 7 that he believes his victory, along with the Prop A win for CapMetro, indicate the people of Austin want him to continue to push the progressive agenda.

RELATED: Austin voters approve Prop A, or Project Connect, and Prop B
The mayor also made it clear, that until a new housing plan is in place, he would rather see the homeless community out in the open in street camps than back in the woods.