City cleaning out debris at homeless camps under overpasses

Austin's Public Works Department is cleaning up debris under bridges and overpasses throughout the city, including areas that are homeless camp hotspots. The city said, while they work to find additional shelter options, protecting health and safety in those areas is a priority. 

Thursday, Public Works cleared out furniture, clothing and trash from under city overpasses, working around the people who live there and the belongings they've left behind. 

“This is just another stop on the trauma train for them, but I do believe having to uproot themselves constantly is part of that system that keeps them where they're at,” said Pastor Mark Hilbelink of Sunrise Community Church, who regularly works with the homeless population. 

Pastor Mark Hilbelink helps them find housing.

The City of Austin assumed the cleanup responsibility under bridges after years of the Texas Department of Transportation doing it. Now, they're learning first hand to expect the unexpected and watch where they step. “We have crews out there disposing of those items. We do provide multiple-day notice in advance, because we do understand some of the items in those locations belong to individuals and we are sensitive to that,” said Kyle Carvell, public affairs manager for the City of Austin Public Works Department.  

For the next 90 days, Public Works will evaluate the cleanup process at 61 highway overpasses. 

One area of particular concern is under U.S. 290 near Pack Saddle Pass. “Because it's got a covered space, because it’s got lots of intersections they can panhandle at, there's a lot of people coming down here,” said Hilbelink.  

Public Works said no people will be removed or arrested during this process and any medications or belongings that are left in the provided "Be safe, Be seen" bags will be left alone.

Hilbelink believes there are some steps the city could take to cut down on trash left behind. 

“I think debris is always a concern. I think one of the issues in this area, particularly, is that there's no dumpsters or anything for people to put their trash in,” Hilbelink said.  

“There is some consideration of some trash receptacles being located in underpasses,” said Veronica Briseno, interim homeless strategy officer for the City of Austin.  

Hilbelink said until people sleeping under U.S. 290 have a permanent place to go, the cleanups will be short lived. “I think the solution has to be some sort of space that's dedicated, whether that's an outdoor space or an indoor space,” said Hilbelink. 

Something that has been proposed is allowing for an open air shelter under the I-35 overpass near 8th Street. The city said it is too early to say that could or will happen, but it is one of many options being considered.