Austin’s Homelessness Crisis Limps Into Fourth Year Since Unregulated Camping Experiment

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There’s a different world under the trees canopying Austin’s creek beds.

Behind the Fiesta grocery store off I-35 South is a microcosm of the city’s underbelly — a makeshift neighborhood not of houses but of tents, tarps, and wooden pallets.

That underbelly became Austin’s face to the nation three years ago when the city council repealed its homeless camping and laying restrictions — allowing unregulated squatting on all public grounds with limited exceptions, including city hall.

Encampments sprouted up on Austin’s boulevards and under its overpasses. Conflict between the city’s homeless population and average citizens populated the news, and voters of the progressive city eventually had enough; they reinstated the ban in a citywide referendum by a near-20-point margin.

After a delayed reinforcement of the ban, the problem seemed to go away — rather, it just became harder to see.

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Over a year and a half removed from that vote, Austin’s homeless problem remains as persistent as ever. The difference is the encampments must be searched for rather than presenting themselves on the city’s doorstep.

Where the Wild Things Are

The entrance of the dirt path to the Williamson Creek homeless camp is tucked behind a commercial dumpster — a few yards beyond that, a pile of garbage.

(The Texan/Brad Johnson)

In this shanty town, only some of the campsites are inhabited. Each one is riddled with garbage, some contained by makeshift pallet fences, but many are abandoned — left by their inhabitants for warming shelters in the winter.

There’s no telling how many people live in these woods; its occupancy vacillates from season to season. “It’s kind of like a tide, they’re always moving,” Jamie Hammonds told The Texan while giving a tour of the encampment.

Hammonds has been searching for and documenting homeless camps throughout the city for the past six months. To the best of his knowledge, there are 20 large camps across Austin and hundreds of smaller ones. During this endeavor, he’s interacted with an untold number of Austin’s homeless population — some friendly, some in dire straits, and others hostile.

“The city’s official numbers tell you it’s between 2,000 and 3,000 people,” Hammonds said. “But my guess is it’s really closer to 8,000.”

The City of Austin’s last Point in Time (PIT) count conducted in January 2020 pegged the total at 2,506. The city has postponed each of the last two scheduled PITs, citing the coronavirus pandemic. A 2021 analysis — using a different methodology than the PIT — put the estimate at 3,194.

But Hammonds and others, including police officials, believe the total is far higher.

In this Williamson Creek camp lives a homeless man named Henry. Just before running into him, Hammonds talked about how last he heard Henry had found housing through one of the city’s programs.

It turns out, that hadn’t lasted. Henry, a diabetic, has found himself back in the woods. The reason, he explained, is that whoever handled his case at the city would not facilitate moving him and his girlfriend into a couples shelter.

Halfway through the conversation, Henry’s girlfriend approached wearing open-toed sandals and no socks. It was 45 degrees.

The pair, whom Hammonds has known for some time now, came from Mississippi three years ago. “We actually missed a bus to another place back up north, but then were told about this one and came to Austin,” Henry’s girlfriend stated.

Their time in this camp has been better than in other encampments across the city, but it’s not without its risks. “They come steal our stuff all the time,” Henry said of the miscellaneous vagrants that pop their heads up from time to time to rifle through others’ belongings.

But he added, “God always takes care of us, he always helps us find a way.”

As the interaction wound down, Hammonds left Henry with $30 for dinner and a promise to return with electric blankets. “I normally hand out gift cards, but I know Henry is clean. He’s not going to use it to buy drugs,” Hammonds stressed.

He’s already poured thousands of his own dollars into helping those he finds who want his help.

Just past their campsite is another, outside which sits a generator used to provide electricity to the three or so camps. Past that is one of the abandoned camps, so neglected that it looks like a tornado ran through only its scattered boundary; at its entry rests a sign stressing the camper is cleaning up and asking for it to be left alone.

(The Texan/Brad Johnson)

On the winding path past the dumpster and garbage pile, Hammonds said he recently found a bag of crystal meth: “It wasn’t small, it was a dealer-sized bag.”

Further down is a burn mark on the ground where Hammonds said someone had burned the plastic coating of wires to get at the copper inside. Stealing copper and selling it to scrapyards is a frequent method by which addicts obtain cash to sustain their addiction.

At every step along the way, miscellaneous garbage is within eyesight; it’s piled up on hillsides and strewn across the defunct campsites.

“Once spring comes, this is all going into the creek,” Hammonds said.

Two years ago, a rainstorm flooded Windsor Park on Austin’s east side, creating a literal trash flood — the sight of which looked not ordinary, but biblical.

The next location, the Tom Donovan Nature Trail, also alongside Williamson Creek, differed substantially from Henry’s area. At the first location, the campers maintained some vestige of tidiness; filled-up garbage bags lined the pathway, and order was neither the rule nor the exception.

Off the Donovan trail, Hammonds warned of a shabbiness turned up to eleven and of the campers’ hostility. He’d been chased out before by the campers and their dogs. One man who squatted underneath an overpass had even tried to fight him.

(The Texan/Brad Johnson)

Abandoned camps separate tent-and-tarp fortresses in that area. Needles, broken glass, liquor bottles, and beer cans scatter the ground.

Leading up to the main segment is a small blackened meadow. Hammonds said this is where a propane tank caught fire a few weeks prior. When that tank exploded, it nearly took the head off a fireman there to put it out.

Another constant in each of these camps is shopping carts. They’re everywhere.

“After seeing all this, I’d like to go into the shopping cart manufacturing business,” Hammonds and his videographer joked. He added that there’s a lot of money left on the table because of these carts.

(The Texan/Brad Johnson)

In his telling, the gun range off South I-35 has dozens of carts on its property. But the grocery stores, in this case Walmart, refuse to take them back. The range’s owner cannot take them to the scrapyard because they’re stolen property, contraband for which he’d be liable.

So in his parking lot they sit, as idle as the ones that dot the forest floor.

On top of the human element — the suffering experienced by those like Henry and others still worse off — the city’s homelessness problem is a real blight on its famous greenbelts.

‘HEALing’ Austin

Hammonds runs the Twitter account “Make Austin Safe Again,” where he shares photos and video of his travails across the city’s most remote grounds.

A political liberal — who said he’d have voted for Ronald Reagan — Hammonds has found the name he originally chose for his account to be off-putting for some among the city’s generally progressive population.

He has since rebranded as “DASH” — which stands for “Documenting Austin’s Streets and Homeless” — as he attempts to put more financial “umph” behind what has been a hobby so he can do it full time.

Hammonds spends at least three days a week scouting out these locations. He first began the endeavor upon seeing some children playing in a forest and then exploring the reality of it: they were living in a nearby homeless camp in which he found glass and needles.

Hammonds intends to publish a map of his findings sometime soon.

But despite the shift, Hammonds says his focus remains the same: to alleviate both the humanitarian and environmental consequences of Austin’s homeless problem.

By far, the most ire expressed by Hammonds is reserved for the City of Austin’s “Housing-focused Encampment Assistance Link” initiative, or HEAL.

HEAL was established by the Austin City Council as a preemptive measure ahead of the May 2021 camping ban referendum. The office tracks encampments and coordinates cleanups. The council appropriated at least $3 million for the first phase of HEAL and plans half a billion in appropriations to address homelessness overall, of which HEAL is one component.

Hammonds’ criticism centers not on what HEAL isn’t doing, but on what it is doing.

(The Texan/Brad Johnson)

A former encampment Hammonds said had been “HEALed” is off of West Gate Boulevard in Southwest Austin. The location made national news for a chainsaw-wielding camper named Ramey, who had been cutting down trees.

Ramey, Hammonds told, is harmless, but has been hallucinating “demons or something” in the trees and is hellbent on cutting them down because of it. Whereas Henry illustrates the city’s homeless population who’s fallen on hard times, Ramey is an example of the segment that suffers from severe mental illness.

“The housing-first approach is inadequate for [people like Ramey],” Hammonds said. The entrance to the woods is marked by a stone cross visible from the roadside, a creation of Ramey’s making. Along the winding path, there were at least two dozen stone crosses, all gathered and stacked by the chainsaw-wielding man.

But the focus of this location is not Ramey. For Hammonds, it’s what remains of the camp that’s been allegedly “HEALed.”

Shredded and trampled garbage is the only reminder of a camp that previously existed there, but it’s a massive reminder.

Flattened Yeti containers, shredded clothing, and, yes, crushed shopping carts remain where a crude “clean up” had occurred. Hammonds said he’s seen this same sight all over the city at multiple different locations.

(The Texan/Brad Johnson)

When asked for comment on the campsite, a City of Austin Homeless Strategy Division spokesman said, “The encampment in question was on private parcels, and therefore not part enforcement of the prohibition of camping on public properties nor of the HEAL Initiative.”

The spokesman referred The Texan to the city Code Department for an inquiry about who supposedly owns the property bisected by walking trails. 

“While encampments or debris located on private lands are formally the responsibility of the property owner, APD enforces trespassing notices authorized by the owner, and, where necessary, Austin Code Department may carry out clean-up as part of abatement activities.”

The spokesman added that the Austin Code Department removed the campers from this location in July and “removed the vast majority of debris and reduced fire load during dangerous drought conditions.”

An official with the Code Department told The Texan that its contractors cleared 1,640 cubic yards of debris from July 25 through 29. According to the Travis Central Appraisal District’s site, the property is owned by NPC Realty.

A joint-division clean up is scheduled for December 3 “after previously being postponed due to weather.” More information about that event can be found here.

“What annoys me is they’ll get on TV and talk like the HEAL initiative is the be-all, end-all and it’s no way better than a homeless camp being here,” Hammonds objected. “This is just a postage-sized snapshot of the problem.”

Austin publishes a list of locations the HEAL initiative has approached and a timeline here.

Last year, an audit of the city’s homelessness spending — at that point $179 million — found a gaping hole in the portfolio.

“[T]here is no complete inventory of agreements and associated spending for the City’s homelessness assistance efforts, and we could not determine the number of these agreements due to limitations with available data,” the audit’s summary read.

Due to the city’s warm climate and broad array of social spending, Austin’s long had a homeless problem with little sign of alleviation. But it’s gotten worse in the last few years.

While the national spotlight has largely abated, the problem is far from going away. Asked about Mayor Steve Adler’s contention during his 2022 State of the City Address that “Austin is poised to be the first major American city to end homelessness,” Hammonds chided, “If you spend any time in these camps you’d know that’s a ridiculous statement.”

“Anywhere you see trees, you’ll find these camps.”



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