The City Council solved its Mayor Pro Tem dilemma last week, but otherwise 2021 is off to something of a rocky start. The early going has been largely dominated by the Council’s number one declared priority, “ending homelessness.” The view here is that the Council must be given credit for trying to solve such a deep and seemingly intractable problem, but it isn’t going very well.
Let’s start, however, with the Mayor Pro Tem decision. On a motion by Mayor Steve Adler the Council unanimously chose District 1 Council Member Natasha Harper Madison to serve as Mayor Pro Tem during 2021. Then, goes the plan, District 10 Council Member Alison Alter will take over in 2022.
Council Member Kathie Tovo, a former Mayor Pro Tem, took the opportunity to gently urge the new Council to be more collaborative than the previous one, or ones. “Many of us have expressed our interest in having a more collaborative tone on the City Council,” said Tovo who added that “the last couple of years . . . have been some of the most divisive.” Disagreements are inevitable, continued Tovo, but “I believe that we’re able to forge better decisions if we’re listening to one another and really trying to understand the ideas and the concerns that others are bringing forward.”
The comity did seem to hold during the rest of the meeting. The longest item there was a public hearing on purchases of hotels, or motels, to house people who are homeless. The Council unanimously approved the purchase of the Texas Bungalows Hotel & Suites at 13311 Burnet Road, but postponed purchase of the Candlewood Suites Hotel in the Anderson Mill area of far northwest Austin. The Candlewood Suites is located at 10811 Pecan Park Blvd. The postponement came at the request of new Council Member Mackenzie Kelly who asked for more time to visit with neighbors of the site. The purchases are part of an effort to buy hotels throughout Austin for housing of the homeless while the City and partner nonprofits work to find people permanent housing.
While the Council appears poised to move forward with the Candlewood Northwest purchase on Thursday there are some differences between that property and the one on far north Burnet Road purchased last week.
The Burnet Road site was a hotel by itself with services a few blocks away. The Candlewood site also has a number of services nearby. The differences are that the Candlewood is in a cluster of hotels, and three stories of rooms on one full side of the hotel overlook a local restaurant — Freda’s which has been in operation for 18 years. The owner, Freda Chen, told CBS Austin, “It’s going to scare a lot of my customers. They already tell me they’re not coming because of the homeless. I have a lot of older guests coming to my restaurant.” She also maintained, “They (homeless people) already broke into my restaurant and they sleep on my patio.”
Other leading opponents include the co-owner as well as the chief financial officer of the adjoining Hampton Inn which shares a driveway with Candlewood. It is located on the other side of the Candlewood from Freda’s.
Another concern of neighbors is that they only very recently found out about the proposed purchase. This was confirmed by the City’s new Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey while answering questions from Council Member Kelly at a January 25 work session. Grey attributed the short notice to “the difficulty of communicating with stakeholders before there is site control of the property,” meaning before the City purchases it. Grey later added, “if you have had folks explicitly reach out to you, we are available to sit down and speak with them about the project.”
A Flurry of Activity in January
We’ll have a bit more on the proposed purchase further down, but first let’s review some of the other occurrences on the homeless issue since the beginning of the year. Prior to that, however, let’s note that homelessness is much broader than simply a City of Austin problem. Contributing factors include: the states long ago gutting of services for the mentally ill, followed by decades of neglect; the longtime lack of any comprehensive federal attempts to address homelessness; the opioid crisis and other drug addiction problems; the cruel distribution of wealth in our country; and the decades long decaying of the social safety net. So it’s probably not a problem that any City Council can completely solve, although our Council thinks they can, and God love ‘em for trying.
Now, on to the chronology; first of all the new Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey began her job on January 4. Grey is a long time Austin resident with a background in affordable housing and working on issues related to homelessness. She seems poised to last longer than the first person who held that job, the then much heralded Lori Pampilo Harris who relocated from Florida in September 2019 then quit after only a month on the job.
Grey, however, didn’t get much time to ease into the job. For example on January 19 Save Austin Now, the group seeking to reverse the Council’s June 2019 repeal of the public camping ban (Council Members Alison Alter and Kathie Tovo voted no), announced that they have enough petition signatures to force an election on rolling back the camping ban repeal. The group submitted signatures last year, but after examination by the Office of the City Clerk, fell short of the number needed to get the item on the ballot. They then gathered more signatures, resubmitted and say they are confident they have now gathered enough. The City Clerk has not yet certified that they made it. If the petition is eventually certified, the item will be on a May ballot — along with another petition drive to convert Austin to a Strong Mayor form of government (more on that soon).
The day after Save Austin Now resubmitted, Governor Greg Abbott weighed in on the issue again. Evidently not watching the presidential inaugural festivities, or bored and needing a break if he was, Abbott tweeted on January 20 at 4 PM: “If Austin doesn’t reinstate the ban on homeless camping the state will do it for them.” The Governor added rather inartfully, “Contrary to what Austin leaders think no one has a right to urinate & defecate wherever they want. Homelessness promoted by Austin has also endangered public safety.”
In an article that appeared the next day, and also featured Abbott’s tweet, Mayor Steve Adler told the Austin American-Statesman that the Council’ camping ban repeal is “not working.” Illustrating the intractability of the problem, Adler added, “Going back to where we were we know doesn’t work – and what we’re doing now we also know doesn’t work.” (With that Adler may have hit on the overriding theme of the 10-1 Councils so far, but we’ll save that discussion for later.) As the Statesman summarized, Adler “suggested City Council members should get together with Austin residents to propose alternative solutions for addressing the city’s growing homelessness crisis.”
Kitchen Picks Up the Gauntlet
Shortly thereafter Council Member Ann Kitchen announced what appears to be a shift in direction on the camping ban. Kitchen posted a resolution for the February 4 Council agenda which acknowledges shortcomings in how the repeal of the camping ban has played out. For instance one item in the Whereas section reads, “effectively allowing encampments to continue as places for people experiencing homelessness to live represents neither a humane alternative nor the best our community can achieve.” That language appears to second Adler’s admission that the camping ban repeal is not working.
Kitchen’s resolution is co-sponsored by Council Members Leslie Pool, Sabino “Pio” Renteria and Mackenzie Kelly. It instructs the City Manager to develop a “Housing-Focused Homeless Encampment Assistance Link (HEAL) initiative” which would seek to move people from encampments to shelter or temporary housing and eventually into permanent housing. It would be a collaboration between City staff and nonprofit social service providers, and offer a range of services “including social, health, behavioral health, and substance use services as needed.”
The resolution then somewhat mind numbingly lays out the priority areas for Phase 1 of HEAL: “(1) in South Central Austin, at a major intersection under a state highway overpass, on a traffic island or median that separates traffic flows with a raised curb, adjacent to a pedestrian walkway; (2) in East Austin, on a sidewalk or public easement adjacent to or leading to a public library; (3) along a major arterial through the Central Business District; and (4) in Northwest Austin, at an intersection adjacent to significant vehicular and pedestrian traffic.”
More precisely, that’s the encampments along Ben White Blvd., under U.S. 183 North, and along E Cesar Chavez near the Terrazas Library, and W. Cesar Chavez near Lady Bird Lake and City Hall.
The basic idea is to concentrate first on people living in the above mentioned encampments, find them temporary shelter, potentially with small “pallet homes” or “tiny homes.” These would be located in areas identified by the City Manager and a “Collaboration” of City staff and social service providers who are to “identify existing structures appropriate for use as non-congregate shelter and vacant property on which modular or ‘tiny home’ housing-focused non-congregate shelter can be quickly constructed with sufficient space to provide housing or housing-focused shelter for the number of individuals currently staying in the priority encampments.”
As Kitchen notes in a posting on the Council Message Board, this is a route that the Council chose not to take in 2019. “I want to emphasize that now is the time to act. This is not a new idea – and was first discussed in 2019.”
She added, “The longer we wait, the longer people will rely on living situations that pose major health and safety risks.”
Kitchen explained at a January 25 work session that such an approach “provides some privacy to people and gives them their own space and can also give them better shelter than they have in a tent right now.” Embarrassingly for the Council, that’s the same approach, or very similar, that Governor Greg Abbott took when he ultimately took some proactive action in 2019 after attacking the Council for repealing the camping ban. Abbott ultimately charged state officials with establishing a designated site in southeast Travis County; a site that is now full.
For her part Kitchen has repeatedly shown a commitment and willingness to step out front on this issue. She has also been consistent in involving social service professionals and agencies at all steps of the process. This was her intent in 2019 when she proposed housing for the homeless in a vacant office building across Ben White Blvd from South Austin Hospital — in the District she represents. That proposal met fierce opposition from adjoining neighborhoods. The idea was eventually abandoned and morphed into the Council’s current policy of buying hotels to temporarily house homeless individuals. However one might feel about the earlier proposal from Kitchen, it took political courage to make such a proposal and also evidenced a sincere commitment to addressing homelessness.
Kitchen’s proposed HEAL approach puts a huge amount of responsibility on the City Manager and City staff. The Manager is to report back with an initial plan by March 4. Within six months, the Manager is to complete moving people from the four locations, or as the resolution puts it, “complete the process for Phase I HEAL Priority Locations within six months of the effective date of this resolution.”
The original draft resolution offered the possibility of putting the four areas back under the camping ban. On Tuesday, however, Kitchen and her co-sponsors removed that language. They kept language saying camping is “disallowed” in those areas, but specified that would only be enforced by “strategies not relying on policing or issuance of citations” and listed “signage” i.e. signs as the only specific enforcement mechanism. This was apparently done in an effort to win the votes of Council Member Greg Casar and Adler — both of whom praised the HEAL approach after the language was changed.
Homeless in Austin Parks
Council Member Alison Alter added herself as a co-sponsor of the resolution after getting agreement to include parks in the priority area. More and more homeless people have been setting up camp in parks, particularly along the Ann and Roy Hike and Bike Trail near Lady Bird Lake. The City has not removed them due to COVID-19 related concerns of disrupting people already living in small groups and concern over where they will locate next.
In photos of parkland encampments posted with an article Tuesday night, the Austin American-Statesman illustrated another painful dimension of the homeless challenge — one that receives little public discussion. In fact the Statesman only advanced the issue through photo captions, not in the article itself.
One photo showed a homeless person who had set up camp at a gazebo along the Hike and Bike Trail right next to Lady Bird Lake, totally taking up the gazebo. The caption said he had moved to Austin from Corpus Christi two months ago. Another photo was of a camper who moved to Austin three months ago. It may not be politically correct to ask if Austin’s repeal of the camping ban is enticing more homeless people to move to Austin, but it seems like something that the City Council should at least consider as a potential reality while they continue to try to end homelessness in Austin.
Back to Hotels
Meanwhile the Council is set to vote on the northwest Austin hotel purchase on Thursday. As the potential purchase became public, resistance grew — although some people from the area spoke in favor at the January 27 Council meeting. Last Sunday, however, opponents held what appeared from television reports to be a spirited rally.
This is a complex subject. For instance as advocates point out, there are people who will never support a shelter in their area. At the same time, as noted earlier there are some factors at the far northwest site that are different than the purchase that went through last week. For instance, it seems not entirely unreasonable that a person whose income depends on the adjacent hotels would be concerned that a facility for the homeless could hurt their business; likewise for the restaurant. It is possible that all three of the following things could be true.
- Purchasing hotels is a quick way to get people out of homelessness and give them a place to stay while authorities and advocates work to find them permanent housing.
- Among the opponents there are people who would never support any sort of homeless facility in their neighborhood.
- Yet, at the same time it is possible, considering the potential economic harm to neighboring businesses, that the current site under consideration could still be a misguided place to put it.
It’s a really tough one. Hopefully the Council will give it thoughtful consideration, and not have to say in a year and a half, “this isn’t working.”
This story has been updated to correct an error in which I referred to a hotel the Council had approved for purchase at 8010 IH 35 when I should have said 13311 Burnet Road. I apologize for the embarrassing error. I actually visited the Burnet Road site and the Pecan Park site which I also discuss in the article. The 8010 N IH 35 site is another hotel which the Council earlier approved acquiring to house the homeless. There was an amendment to the option agreement related to that property on the same January 27 agenda where they approved purchase of the hotel on Burnet Road. When I went back to get the address for this article somehow I picked the IH 35 address and inserted that. I apologize for the error and will try not to do that sort of thing again. Thank you to the reader who pointed this out. Daryl
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