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AUSTIN, Texas (FOX 7 Austin) – In about two weeks, Austin’s Watershed Protection Department will begin clearing out homeless camps that are considered a threat to those living there or others.
The six-month pilot program includes first responders, environmental groups and social service providers to help connect people in the camps to resources that can help them.
On any given night in Austin, there are more than 2,000 people experiencing homelessness.
“It’s an issue that’s been around for a long time now and we’re trying to come up with ways to handle the situation in a human and empathetic way,” said Ramesh Swaminathan, managing engineer with the Watershed Protection Department.
Swaminathan said one of the biggest concerns regarding people experiencing homelessness are those living along waterways. “It’s a critical issue for them and it’s an important issue for us,” said Swaminathan.
For the next six months, the city will participate in a pilot program to clean up homeless camps in watershed mission areas, starting with nine hotspots where camps and trash left behind pose environmental and safety hazards.
“If they are residing in those storm water culverts, it’s a safety issue for them, but, also, it’s a safety issue because they’re blocking conveyance that could cause upstream flooding,” Swaminathan said.
Some camps will need to be removed so watershed employees can get equipment in to perform maintenance, others are more of a public safety concern. “How much they affect our mission areas and other things like crime, and any immediate sign of drug activity, and things like that,” said Swaminathan.
Depending on the priority level of each location, those living in the camp will receive either a 72-hour or 30-day notice before crews arrive. “So, we want to be very kind and empathetic and provide the services, and we’re not just going to come there and displace them and remove them from where they are,” Swaminathan said.
Integral Care and other social support agencies will also be on site to offer resources to people living in each camp. Watershed staff hopes that will connect more people to case managers who can get them into shelters or housing. “Hopefully, by working together with everybody, we can offer the services to them and, once that happens, they may not have to come back,” said Swaminathan.
The WPD hopes to learn what works from this pilot so they can eventually expand the program to other camps in the city. Contracted cleanup crews and WPD employees will take a mental health training course before they visit any of the camps so they can better help the people living there.