On Wednesday, January 29, 2020, the Watershed Protection Department will resume cleaning homeless encampments that impact Austin’s drainage system, starting with two sites on Riverside Drive.
A contract was approved by the Austin City Council in December that authorized $250,000 over the course of a year for cleaning Watershed Protection land and infrastructure. The goal is to help promote public safety and protect Austin residents from flooding, erosion and water pollution by ensuring our drainage infrastructure functions as intended.
For many people experiencing homelessness, the only immediate option is to camp in public places. People often seek shelter near creeks and stormwater infrastructure such as drainage channels or tunnels. But these places are not safe. Both the residents of the camps and first responders may be placed in harm’s way in the event of a flood. Staff will be discussing the flood risks at these locations with encampment residents.
Mattresses, furniture, shopping carts and other objects can block the flow of water and worsen flooding upstream of the encampment. Even without a flood, litter and trash may make their way to our creeks and lakes and impact our waterways.
The current contract follows a six-month pilot program. Between March and September 2019, the pilot program tested a standardized process for managing encampments on Watershed Protection land. During the pilot, Watershed Protection conducted 37 cleanups across nine sites and removed 27 tons of material at a cost of $61,000.
During the pilot, Watershed Protection staff met with many people experiencing homelessness. The pilot provided staff with a new level of respect for the individuals facing such an incredible personal challenge.
Watershed Protection is trying to approach the cleanups with as much empathy and consideration as possible. The department will provide 72-hour notice of any cleanup and follow City of Austin processes for the protection of personal property. The department is working with community partners to engage those living in encampments and provide them with social services on an ongoing basis between scheduled cleanups.
The current contract is flexible and allows the department to add or remove locations citywide as needed. Locations are assessed and selected based on the risk of flooding and water pollution.
The City’s funding for cleaning encampments follows a $63 million commitment made by Austin City Council in the FY2020 Budget to address homelessness in Austin. Much of this broader investment is being directed at helping restore people to safe and stable housing and at preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place.