Austin's Watershed Protection Department will begin clearing out homeless encampments located in environmentally sensitive areas and connecting individuals found there with social services within the next two weeks, assistant director Jose Guerrero told the city's health and human services committee during a briefing Wednesday.
"A lot of the camps that they live in ... are on watershed lands, greenbelt areas, under bridges, in culverts -- mainly because they don't want to get wet; that's just the reality -- but we have flash flooding in Central Texas," Guerrero said. "It's a public safety and health issue."
The Austin American-Statesman reports officials said the six-month pilot program will focus on nine "hotspots" around the city and crews will visit them at varying frequencies:
-- A culvert at 2301 E. Riverside Drive, monthly.
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-- 1901 Wickersham Lane, monthly.
-- 708 E. Eighth St., quarterly.
-- 3800 Warehouse Row, quarterly.
-- 428 Alpine Road, quarterly.
-- 1807 E. Stassney Lane, quarterly.
-- 3002 Oak Springs Drive, quarterly.
-- Two sites at 4501 E. Riverside Drive, monthly.
Guerrero said the department chose those locations because they're among those that have been visited the most frequently for cleanups in the past.
Homeless encampments in areas like culverts -- the channels that allow water to flow under a road or railroad -- or near creeks pose a risk for the people living there and the environment, Guerrero said. The lack of sanitary services in those areas could impact water quality, and the physical obstruction of encampments can inhibit stormwater, he said.
The Austin City Council budgeted $250,000 annually for four years of the program, Guerrero said. Managing engineer Ramesh Swaminathan estimated the pilot program will cost between $50,000 and $60,000, with most of the money going toward a contract with a custodial company and the rest for supplies.
The nine locations fall into three priority levels, which are based on the risk each poses to human safety and the environment, Swaminathan said. For immediate need areas, the department will ask people living there to evacuate and will give them a 72-hour notice of the cleanup. In medium priority areas, people will be given a 30 days' notice.
Swaminathan said the department is working with a variety of organizations -- including Integral Care, the county's mental health authority, and the city's homeless outreach street team -- to help connect the homeless people whom crews encounter with social services. With immediate need cleanups, the team will try to find them emergency shelter in addition to long-term support.
In low risk areas, Swaminathan said the department will supply people with cleanup materials, such as garbage receptacles and drawstring bags for possessions, and educate them on safe camping techniques, such as how to properly start and extinguish a fire.
After a recent test cleanup, Swaminathan said a woman the team encountered now has a case manager from Integral Care and receives health care services, and she has completed an assessment through a nonprofit to connect her with housing. She also has been removing trash in and around the encampment, which he said has saved the city money in avoided cleanups.
Council member Ann Kitchen asked Swaminathan if the department is considering installing infrastructure that will deter people from camping in these areas, in addition to the social services support.
"The cleanups are episodic and not an ultimate solution for folks," Kitchen said. "This program cannot solve all those problems; I'm not suggesting that. I'm just thinking that I am concerned it is not going far enough, particularly with regard to the places that are most dangerous for people."
Swaminathan said the department is studying infrastructural solutions, such as putting screens over culvert openings.
"I think we would all agree that this is just one piece of a much more comprehensive program that we need to undertake as the city moves forward," Council member Kathie Tovo said.