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Nonprofit with new shelter plans to take over Abbott's state-run camp for the homeless in Austin

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Tents at the state-run homeless encampment off of U.S. Highway 183 in Austin on Feb. 25, 2020. Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

For the past four months, much of Austin’s homeless population has been living on a campground in southeast Austin as part of Gov. Greg Abbott’s attempt to move them away from the city’s center.

But this week, Abbott started the process of handing the reins of the state-run camp over to ATX Helps, a nonprofit that plans to build and run a temporary shelter on the lot. Abbott, who has been at war for months with Austin city leaders, criticizing them for relaxing public camping ordinances and accusing them of endangering the public, tweeted last week that the state was offering the land to the nonprofit for just $1 per month.

Members of the Texas Transportation Commission, a five-member, governor-appointed board, voted unanimously Thursday to allow the Texas Department of Transportation to begin negotiating with ATX Helps. The nonprofit was created in November by the Austin Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Austin Alliance to offer longer term solutions to the city’s homelessness problem.

But until those negotiations begin, details of the camp’s future remain unclear, and the camp’s current residents in limbo.

Downtown Austin Alliance vice president Bill Brice said after the vote that he won't know state agencies' involvement in the camp going forward until negotiations begin. Currently, the Division of Emergency Management provides residents with three emergency meals packages a day, and state troopers patrol the grounds.

And while Brice said the shelter would only take up a fraction of the total 6.7 acres, it’s uncertain how the three to four months of construction will impact the camp residents. As of this week, there were about 140 people living on the lot.

ATX Helps hasn’t discussed the shelter idea with residents of the camp because, until Thursday, it was uncertain whether the plan would move forward, Brice said.

When asked, many residents were unaware of the upcoming changes. And after learning of the state’s plan to allow a nonprofit to construct a large shelter on the grounds and take over camp operations, many were skeptical, if not totally opposed to the idea. Common concerns included potentially losing privacy or autonomy.

“Nobody's going to tell me when I can and can't come back to my house,” said veteran and camp resident Joe Cortez, 65, who pitched a tent on the lot two weeks after it opened. “That's not me. I'm too old for that, set in my ways already. I did my time. I'm happy right here.”

Designed by Utah-based company Sprung Structures, the shelters are metal, air-conditioned facilities designed to be erected quickly and easily rearranged to provide space for showers and third-party services like medical care, said Sprung Structures President Jim Avery. On the Sprung website, pictures show one-story structures comprised of a large central room lined with dozens of cots.

“I know we would have less space, from the looks of when I saw the plan,” said longtime camp resident and sous-chef Lucia, who asked to be identified only by her first name to avoid jeopardizing employment. “What about my privacy, my quiet time, my sleep time, my sleep rhythm? When I get home from work, the last thing I want to do is see everybody.”

Sprung shelters have been erected to address homelessness in cities like San Diego, San Francisco and Toronto, according to the company’s website. The facilities can be shipped, assembled, and running within a few months — faster than brick-and-mortar building, which makes them a good short-term solution to homelessness, Avery said.

“It's not trying to compete with housing-first initiatives,” Avery said. “Rather, it's designed to be put up immediately to get a lot of people off the streets and into something where they can stay for 90 to 120 days while they decide on what's next.”

The shelter will have space for a “navigation center” where third-party providers can coordinate medical care, mental health services, addiction services, job placement and other solutions to long-term issues, similar to the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, Brice said.

ATX Helps has raised $1.5 million of its preliminary $5.5 million goal, which would allow the nonprofit to construct and operate the shelter for a minimum of 2 years with 150 beds, Brice said.

He said the organization will likely be able to secure donations for construction services, reducing initial costs. The greater fundraising goal of $14 million would allow for 300 beds, the nonprofit’s desired capacity.

The initial lease period would be for 10 years, with three optional extensions for 5 years each, Brice told the commission.

A group of camp residents who oppose the shelter formed the organization “Hands for Hope,” which they plan to make a more official mouthpiece and governing body for the community. The group said they have applied for nonprofit status and created a website explaining their mission.

In a letter addressed to Abbott, Hands for Hope’s leaders said they would rather maintain their current set up with individual tents and proposed residents pay a dollar a month each to keep the camp the way it is. They compared shelters to jail, writing that shelter residents are “herded and treated like animals by people who seem to have forgotten that we are human beings.”

“We believe this is a good idea for several reasons: It gives the residents here a sense of responsibility, and provides the basis of stewardship,” the letter reads. “Also, we aren’t lazy and aren’t expecting a hand-out. It’s our intention to get back into the world. We are sick of being shuffled from one jail-like dorm to another, like cattle.”

Not all residents are opposed to the idea, though. While Hands for Hope leader Robert Rhodes spoke to reporters after the meeting Thursday, two female camp residents interrupted, yelling “he doesn’t represent us!” Don English, another resident, remains optimistic.

"[The new shelter] would probably be better than this here because this week, I think it's gonna be like 28 degrees,” English said. “I've been out here when it's been cold, it's been miserable. Anything's worth a try.”

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