Austin’s homeless residents have nowhere to go during camp action

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By the time the city crew demolished Austin’s foremost homeless camp, Dominic Palmer and her husband, Charles Taylor, were already on their way.

Two weeks ago, police cited Palmer and Taylor for violating the city’s voter-approved ban on homeless camps.

When he tried to drive elsewhere, Palmer said, his car ran out of gas on a nearby hill.

On the morning of September 29, the Austin Public Works team removed at least 20 tents, leaving the rest of the camp under threat of arrest. Austin police set up a paddy box at a camp just in front of police headquarters.


“Is that our house?” Palmer said. “If we don’t leave or can’t afford it… everyone offers us prison.”

Faced with pressure from Governor Greg Abbott, who defended a new state-wide law banning camps in public places, Austin officials have in recent weeks taken the city’s most visible campsites and Austin’s homelessness. has been eliminated. sent a clear message to residents: they are no longer welcome to live in the plan.

However, Austin does not have enough housing or shelter for the estimated 3,000 residents who experience homelessness.

With few options, many homeless people are forced out of sight for fear of being ticketed or arrested.

City activists wipe out a former homeless camp off Riverside Drive in Austin on September 28, 2021. credit: Sergio Flores, Texas Tribune


City activists wipe out a former homeless camp on Riverside Drive in Austin on September 28, 2021.  Several people living in the camp said that they were not fully informed and were not given a place to stay.  Sergio Flores at Texas Tribune

Several people living in the camp said that they were not fully informed and were not given a place to stay. credit: Sergio Flores, Texas Tribune

City workers clean up homeless camps off Austin’s Riverside Drive. Many who lived there said they had not been fully informed and had not been given a place to live, but city officials warned that police would require residents to leave the area for several months. claims to be. credit: Sergio Flores, Texas Tribune

For some, this means taking them out into the woods and setting up tents.

City crews dump tents, tarpaulins and bedding as John Nunez sits outside a CVS pharmacy on September 28 and clears a mid-camp at Pleasant Valley and Riverside Drive. I see that it is full.

Nunez, 60, persuaded an employee of a nearby housing complex to oversee some of his belongings, but still carry a fair amount of molasses, ice chests, outdoor grills, and more.


Nunez, who said he had been homeless for nearly two years, moved from Big Spring to Austin last October after he learned that camping in public was allowed. Now he says he is adapting to the new reality and plans to spend the night near a nearby stream.

“When the police see the camp… they’re just going in,” Nunez said. “Before, they never came there. never.”

Too much enforcement, not enough housing

Austin is facing increasing pressure to crack down on homeless camps after voters approved a May voting bill to revive the camp ban that was withdrawn by the city council two years ago.

A propane burner sits near bicycle parts near a former homeless camp on Riverside Drive on September 28, 2021 in Austin.  Several people living in the camp said that they were not fully informed and were not given a place to stay.

Propane burners and bicycle parts were laid on the ground at a homeless camp on Riverside Drive before being cleaned up by city workers. credit: Sergio Flores, Texas Tribune

As of Monday, Austin officials have issued 506 warnings and 130 citations under the ban. One was arrested, but instead of imprisoned, he was put in the city’s Diversion Community Court.


However, some are impatient with what they see as the city’s slow, step-by-step approach to enforcing the ban. A group of business owners, along with Save Austin Now, the political action committee that pushed the bill, sued city leaders in August to enforce stricter enforcement.

Texas legislators have implemented a statewide camping ban this year. This has given the state’s Republican leadership more power to punish Austin leaders for allowing the camp to survive.

Last month, Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton threatened to sue officials in major Texas cities for violating state law, and federal and state funding available to help those experiencing homelessness. Was. Pointed out over $410 million.

“Local organizations like you must uphold the rule of law by enforcing this public camping ban,” Abbott and Paxton wrote in the September 9 letter.


Austin spokeswoman Yasmin Hassan said the city has been working on “closing the camps” in recent months to educate the public about the camp ordinance and provide a list of resources. Said that he had sent the police to a camp in the city. He said police closed the I-35 camp “without citation or arrest.”

In tackling homelessness, he said, “APD and city partners are focusing on taking a responsible humane approach to law enforcement on the camps and working with those affected.” While the resources to do so are increasing, the capacity of shelters to account for overall community distress remains limited.

Juan Gomez, 49, has been living in an off-the-grid camp in Austin for four years.

Juan Gomez, 49, has been living in an off-the-grid camp in Austin for four years. credit: Michael Gonzalez / The Texas Tribune

The city now has more than 1,800 shelter beds and housing units for the homeless, according to Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, and Austin has been the go-to shelter since the COVID-19 pandemic began. is getting narrower. Number of people in shelters to slow the spread of the virus.


Local officials have set a $306 million goal of building 3,000 homes for people experiencing homelessness. Austin and Travis County plan to sell a combined $216 million and raise the remaining $90 million from the private sector. However, those units were not completed until 2024.

During that time, the ban on camps “made it incredibly difficult to find people experiencing homelessness and connect them with the help they need,” said Mark Hilberinck, director of the Sunrise Homeless Navigation Center in Austin. It is very less efficient. He said the big camp made the job easier.

“A year ago it might have taken a caseworker 10 minutes to find John Smith, but now it can take months for a caseworker to find John Smith,” Hilberink said.

Adrian Elliott and Shirley Crawford sit near a former homeless camp on Riverside Drive on September 28, 2021 in Austin.  Several people living in the camp said that they were not fully informed and were not given a place to stay.

Adrian Elliott and Shirley Crawford were at Riverside Drive camp before being cleared. credit: Sergio Flores, Texas Tribune


“Where are we going?”

Shirley Crawford, 54, who lives in a camp by the river, spent a week packing up the camp before being evacuated.

Crawford went into the woods of a nearby park on Tuesday morning as he arranged furniture and equipment near the parking lot of a shopping center near Middle. The number of campers increased as police and city crew cleared camps in southeast Austin. It seemed like the only option.

Crawford’s sister lives in Austin, but lives in a section 8 home that has strict rules about how long visitors can stay. Hence, staying with him is not a long term option.

Some of the camp men talked to the police about returning midway after the city crew had left, but for Crawford it was off the table. She didn’t want to risk the ticket or get arrested for another offence, as she was cited for a one-time violation and could undermine her chances of securing permanent residence.


“I don’t have time to go to jail,” Crawford said. “And I don’t want to put that on my record.”

For Felix Gonzalez and his dog, Pablo, the forest is the only place to go.

For a year and a half, Gonzales built a camp under a bridge along Seventh Street near Pleasant Valley Road on the east side of Austin. There they had access to food, water and electricity. Garbage was regularly picked up in the homeless camp as well, he said.

However, in early August officers came to the camp and annihilated the camp. According to Gonzales, police officers told residents that the two city-owned hotels did not have space for them to accommodate the homeless.

“All these people are now looking for a place to go,” Gonzales said. “I have a huge question here. Where’s going? Shoot a safe, invisible, unadulterated one.”

Over the years, Juan Gómez has built houses in the woods made from plywood, glass and other materials recovered from trash cans.


Gomez allows Gonzales to set up a tent there and bring Pablo in. He did not say why they were convicted, but said they had known each other from a stint in a Mexican prison. But Gonzales said his time in prison led to post-traumatic stress disorder. He said this made him unable to continue with his normal work.

“We have a predicament, one man,” Gonzales said. “We are … not just people who want to be homeless and put them in the trash or pick up bins. People are homeless because of problems.”

The nonprofit helped some of the people in the camp temporarily rent a motel room. But this only foreshadows an uncertain fate.

Billy Smith, who stayed at I-35 camp for a year, moved into a motel room paid for by a friend.

“He gave me a room for about a week,” Smith, 61, said. “I don’t know after that.”

Jennifer Weider, 37, said she didn’t know where to go once the I-35 camp was cleared.


Originally from South Carolina, she said her immediate family was dead or in prison and that her two daughters were in foster care.

On a sunny eve, as the sun set behind the downtown Austin skyline, Weider sat in tears outside the tent.

“I’m just moving on,” Weider said. “I have to do it now. I have no choice left.”

The next morning she was gone.

Austin’s homeless residents have nowhere to go during camp action

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