TxDOT homeless camp clean up not a hammer, but a broom

Seventeen transient/homeless camps located along I-35, US 183 and SH 71 in Austin are scheduled for a Texas Department of Transportation clean up Monday. 

On Thursday morning, James M. Bass, head of TxDOT, downplayed what's to take place.         

"Is this operation different from what TxDOT has done in the past, and from what the City of Austin has done recently? No, it is no different,” said Bass.

That's certainly not what many expected. Transient/homeless camps became more visible after the Austin City Council earlier this year struck down an ordinance that prevented the practice. A partial reinstatement of the ban was done a few weeks ago, but that did not address camps under roadways.

Notification signs went up Tuesday that a cleanup would be done on November 4 by TxDOT. Governor Greg Abbott set a November 1 deadline for the city to fully address the problem.

A couple by the name of Jerry and Joyce, who sleep a few feet from one of the signs, spoke about preparing for Monday’s moving day.

"What I'm doing, is starting to pack my stuff up. All the stuff I want, I'll take with me,” said Jerry who declined to give his last name.

Jerry went on to say if he can find a new place he will not come back, but if not, he will set up camp under the bridge again. Jerry can come back because of a legal loophole.

"There is no law to prevent them from going back under the bridge,” said TxDOT’s Diann Hodges.

The agency is limited in what it can do.

" If it’s a public safety hazard if somebody was to set their tent in the middle of our highway right in the middle of our highway, in the middle of a lane that is a public safety hazard," Hodges said. "We would go in and remove that, so it’s a case by case bases, right if we determine there is a situation that could result in injury to a person or injury to our infrastructure, of course, we would act on that."

A permanent removal, Hodges said, would require a new ordinance by the city or legislation from the state.

The TxDOT operation is essentially a one-and-done operation. A spokesperson for the governor said it's his expectation that after November 4 the city of Austin will resume cleaning the camps under the overpasses.

About 60 locations have been targeted, but officials at Austin Public Works say only debris will be removed, not people, similar to what they did in May on Ben White Boulevard. That provides some relief for people like Jerry and Joyce, but it's still far cry from a solution. 

Back at the camp under I-35, Jerry was asked what would he say if he could talk to the Mayor and the Governor.

“I'd tell them, I ain’t got no place to stay, I’m out on the streets, a job would help, a job would help me find me a place to stay so I won’t be there out on the streets, I need help,” said Jerry.

During the cleanup operation, advocates for the homeless will be on site but only to help direct people to services. Personal property that's collected will be stored at a TxDOT location for 30 days. The governor's office will be monitoring how the city will do its sweeps, and state officials say, if necessary, TxDOT will move in again. 

Meanwhile, officials with TABC issued an advisory letter to alcohol retailers. The agency reminded them to keep their property safe and that staff members must be able to identify potentially intoxicated customers as well as to refuse any sales that could endanger public safety.