Crystal Brimm said she was gone all of 20 minutes.
That’s all the time it took for the Texas Department of Transportation to clean the encampment where she lives under U.S. Highway 290 and Ben White Boulevard on Wednesday, after Gov. Greg Abbott ordered homeless people to be removed from state overpasses in Austin. Abbott has spent months railing against Austin and its local leaders, accusing them of worsening what he calls a dangerous homelessness crisis by relaxing camping ordinances.
About 10 people returned to that area of the overpass, down from 30 before TxDOT arrived, Brimm said as she sat in a lawn chair Thursday outside the blue camping tent she shares with her husband.
“Everybody else packed up and ran like cockroaches,” she said.
As Brimm pondered her future living situation, Gov. Greg Abbott’s office unveiled his plan to provide temporary living space for Austin’s homeless — a five-acre plot of land off State Highway 183 near Montopolis Drive.
The soon-to-be campground is a large expanse of concrete surrounded by a manufactured home factory and forest. It’s about five miles away from the Texas Capitol, in a clearing adjacent to the historically low-income Montopolis neighborhood, across from the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
On Thursday afternoon, TxDOT backhoes were leveling dirt in apparent preparation for the new temporary residents. Ten port-a-potties and five hand-washing stations were already in place.
The plot of land will include “portable restrooms, hand washing stations, and comes with commitments from local charities to deliver food multiple times a day,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman said in a text message. He said the solution “will provide access to healthcare providers and homeless case workers to provide care for the homeless.”
The Department of Public Safety will provide 24-hour security, Wittman said.
As state vehicles drove in and out of the property, Chuck Mitchell, a housing consultant at Palm Harbor Homes — next door to the planned site — said he hadn’t heard of the governor’s plans before Thursday afternoon.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler, Abbott’s political foe, responded to Abbott’s announcement by stressing the city would be focusing on permanent housing solutions.
“Shelters can be an important part of the range of housing we need and are most effective when associated with a housing exit strategy,” Adler said. “The State’s temporary camping area can be constructive when it provides people with a choice that has greater safety, services and support and a real prospect of a housing exit. The city will support such efforts with continued focus on permanent housing solutions and we could really use the State’s help here, too.”
State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, a Democrat whose district includes the temporary camp, expressed concern that the encampment was being moved to a community that is “primarily Hispanic and exists in one of the most historically underserved parts of Austin.”
He called for more permanent solutions to help Austin’s homeless population.
“We must also ensure that there are adequate resources for the people who choose to take shelter in this location and strive to replace this stopgap measure with more permanent housing options as soon as possible,” he said.
Wittman said camping is a short-term solution but will be available “as long as it takes” while the chamber of commerce, businesses and faith-based groups develop a long-term solution.
Meanwhile, the Austin Chamber of Commerce on Thursday morning unveiled a coalition made up of business leaders, nonprofits and faith-based organizations which hopes to raise $14 million to construct a 300-bed shelter in Austin. The coalition, dubbed ATX Helps, hopes to raise $2 million by the end of the year to fund the physical shelter. The remaining money will be used to fund storage, dining and sanitation services, as well as services to help people suffering from mental illness or substance abuse, for two years.
Dewitt Peart, president of the Downtown Austin Alliance, said a lack of emergency shelters is the “critical missing piece” in Austin’s response to homelessness.
Peart did not specify where the planned shelter would be located, but noted the coalition hopes it will be within half a mile of Austin’s central business district, near social service providers. He said the city of Austin has offered its support in “expediting” the process and hinted at the possibility of using state land.
“Obviously, if we had state land available to us, that makes things a lot easier,” Peart said.
Back under Highway 290, people experiencing homelessness were mulling whether they’d move to the state’s new designated area for camps.
Terrance, who asked only to be identified by his first name, said privacy and proximity to transit are his two most important concerns. Stops for Capital Metro’s 217 and 350 bus routes are about one mile from the camp.
“If there was buses and stuff close, I would do it,” he said. “But other than that, I don’t like to travel far when it comes to my needs as far as like going to my doctor’s appointments or social security or something like that.”