As an arctic blast hit the city over Christmas weekend, Austin opened cold weather shelters and welcomed hundreds of the city’s thousands of homeless people between Thursday evening and Tuesday morning. The low temperature for Christmas Eve in the area was 12 degrees, according to the National Weather Service, and a freeze warning was in effect through Christmas night.
Homelessness has plagued the state capital for years, but the problem has gotten significantly worse in the last year. Nearly 3,500 homeless people now reside in the Austin area, according to ECHO, an Austin homelessness nonprofit. That number has risen over 20% between last year and this year.
On Tuesday, the Texas Department of Transportation conducted a cleanup of a homeless encampment in south Austin in the South Lamar neighborhood. The department initially pointed to the city of Austin when asked about cleanups, but later confirmed Texas DOT was responsible for the cleanup.
Texas DOT said it “typically” conducts cleanups on Tuesdays and that when crews arrive, homeless people are given the opportunity to remove their belongings beforehand. Whatever is abandoned will be cleaned up, and there are signs warning people that state law prohibits camping on public property posted at all cleanup locations, the department noted.
This means that homeless people who went to a shelter during the freezing nights of Christmas weekend and Monday found their belongings gone when they returned on Tuesday. The cleanup also appears to have swept up the blankets, jackets, and other supplies that hundreds of volunteers provided to homeless people before the storm came.
The city of Austin was not involved in that cleanup or any other Christmas week cleanups of homeless encampments, a city spokesperson said. No cleanups are planned for the rest of the year either.
On Christmas Day, city shelters closed when temperatures rose above freezing, but they opened again that night when temperatures dropped again. The city said it also fed guests with breakfast and box lunches.
Now Austin and Texas DOT are being criticized not only by fed-up residents, but also by homeless advocates.
“We were horrified to realize that there were so many people that had no idea that cold weather was coming and no way to prepare for it,” said Sasha Rose of Austin Mutual Aid, a local grassroots group.
Meanwhile, residents complain that homeless people from nearby encampments cause a litany of problems for their neighbors.
“I’ve seen urinating and defecating into the street. We’ve seen needles. We’ve seen broken bottles and litter, stuff like that,” one South Austin resident told KVUE earlier this month.
Reports to 311, 911, and emails to the district’s council members yielded little fruit, residents say.
Last year, Austin voters banned homeless people from camping in public spaces. Since then, police and other city and state government agencies have enforced the ban.