On Monday afternoon, state troopers, officials from the state transportation department, and cleaning contractors descended on a homeless encampment beneath Texas State Highway 71 in South Austin. For the next four hours, the crew loaded crates and bags with cans, bottles, backpacks, and furniture, filling two dumpsters to the brim.
Some cleaning was certainly needed. The encampment, off West Gate Boulevard, was dirty—dirtier than the other encampments in Austin I’ve visited. Trash was strewn across the concrete. I saw feces and smelled urine.
But the state’s concerns weren’t strictly hygienic. The City of Austin has cleaned under highway overpasses once a month since May. Camp residents say that during those cleanups, they were often allowed to move their tents and important possessions onto the sidewalk or into piles, and the city cleaned around them. The state, however, insisted that all tents and personal belongings be cleared from the area, causing people to scatter with the possessions they could carry.
Monday’s cleanup was part of a five-month campaign that Governor Greg Abbott has waged—largely on Twitter—against the homeless in Texas’ capital city. In June, Austin’s city council partially repealed three ordinances that criminalized sitting, lying, camping, or begging in public. Ever since, the governor and other Republicans have portrayed liberal Austin as suddenly swarming with disease and hordes of unhoused criminals (despite testimony to the contrary from local safety and health officials). Since early October, the governor has threatened everything from a state police crackdown to health department quarantines, but Monday’s cleanup is his first major follow-through.
The state had said it would clear out multiple camps on Monday, but only managed to clean West Gate. Texas Department of Transportation spokesperson Diann Hodges said the agency will clean 17 total locations this week, and, until the governor instructs otherwise, will clean those locations on a weekly basis. The department began cleanups under I-35 near downtown on Tuesday morning. A cost estimate for the operation is not yet available.
In what passed for preparation, TxDOT posted signs last week warning that they would remove remaining property and directing camp residents to downtown shelters that were already full.
Homeless Austinites camp out under highways for practical reasons: There’s protection from the weather, they’re relatively close to homeless services, and there’s safety in numbers and visibility. So when you ask them where else they might go, they don’t have a good answer.
On Monday, as he gathered his worldly possessions at the West Gate camp, 49-year-old William Plumlee was pessimistic about his options. “I don’t know; I might end up in a graveyard,” the Fort Worth native said. “This is the only place to stay out of the rain and the cold.”
Michelle Chauvin, 34, said that the camps provide community. “At least here, we can watch each other’s backs,” she said. Chauvin, like others I spoke to, said that with a permanent dumpster and portable toilet, the camp could be kept clean. She didn’t want to go back to the woods, where she’d be isolated from services and stores. Chauvin, who currently has a cleaning job, said Monday’s clear-out was just another obstacle to her escaping homelessness. “I need a stable environment to live in and go to work,” she said. “Now they’re taking everything; this is stressful as fuck.”
TxDOT offered to take personal belongings to an offsite storage facility to be picked up later, but most people opted to work with The Other Ones Foundation instead. The nonprofit, which helps the homeless find work, declined a request from a state contractor to formally partner in the cleanup operation. Nevertheless, the group was present Monday and worked independently to transport three truckloads of personal possessions to a private storage unit or to a site where some homeless relocated.
Chris Baker, the foundation’s director, called Abbott’s cleanups “political theater,” noting that all the camp’s residents would remain homeless, and many would likely return to the same area.
In a separate action Monday, Austin police also cleared out an encampment around the downtown shelter Austin Resource Center for the Homeless. After two rounds of revisions, Austin’s ordinances permit camping under overpasses but not on sidewalks or in any way that endangers health or safety. An APD spokesperson said the downtown encampment was in violation of the remaining restrictions. Austin Public Safety Commissioner Chris Harris condemned the action, saying that together with the state cleanups, the homeless would be left with ”nowhere else to go near the services offered downtown.”
After Monday’s cleanup at West Gate, William, a 56-year-old originally from Naples, Texas, who’s been homeless for six months, was the only camp resident still on the scene. I asked him where he would go, and he said the same place as everyone else.
Walking distance from the camp, at the mouth of a wooded area, people displaced from the underpass had gathered. Some had moved before the state showed up in anticipation of the cleanup. On their own or with The Other Ones’ help, they’d kept a number of their possessions, including tents. Most said they’d spend a night or two in the woods before returning to the underpass, to avoid angering the state by returning too quickly. Others said that aggressive weekly clean-outs might deter them from returning at all, though they weren’t sure where else they could stay.
At the end of the day, the state had reduced Austin’s homeless population by zero.
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