AUSTIN, Texas -- Service providers who help the homeless in Austin say the cold weather already tends to lead to an increase of people seeking shelter. The trend comes when crews from the Texas Department of Transportation prepare to clear homeless encampments under the state highways in the coming days. The directive, Tuesday, from Gov. Greg Abbott, is causing confusion among those living on the streets, as they are being asked to seek help at places with limited resources. State crews will remove personal property and camp debris on November 4. 

  • TxDot to begin clearing homeless camps Monday
  • Many shelters already at capacity
  • Long waitlists exist at several shelters

In anticipation of state action, Ally Harper, who has been living under U.S. 290 near South Lamar Boulevard, has already begun collecting trash and clearing out. 

“It feels like Austin's kind of sweeping the problem under the rug and punishing us for it rather than addressing the real concerns that really are affecting everybody in Austin, including the housed,” Harper said. 

The 37-year-old is on a waiting list for housing and case management.

“What I’ve realized being out here is that you got a lot of cases that are due to trauma, whether it be childhood or recent. You got a lot of mental health issues out here that really aren’t being addressed, and you got a lot of housing cost issues. A lot of the artists that used to be thriving in this town can’t even afford a one-bedroom now,” Harper said. 

The notices TxDOT workers have posted under overpasses to let people know about the changes also say people who need assistance with services to “change” their “situation” could call the local nonprofits Integral Care, Salvation Army, and Front Steps. The mentioned organizations do provide shelter, however, they are all full and face a backlog.

“If anybody comes to our doors and are interested in coming into the ARCH, we let them know that we are currently full and that we have a waitlist. We will talk with them about their situation. We’d like to be able to help them resolve it through other means, potentially reconnecting with family and with friends. Other than that we’d help them find another resource and keep them in mind on our waitlist,” said Greg McCormack, executive director of Front Steps, which operates the ARCH in downtown Austin.  

ARCH capacity: 

  • 150 beds for single male adults
  • 200 people on the waitlist 
  • 250 to 400 people use day resource center 

“We got to start looking toward solutions. I understand the visibility issue, I understand safety. All of these things are around people not having another place to go. We need additional resources,” McCormack said.

The Salvation Army also does not have extra space at its downtown shelter and the Austin Shelter for Women and Children.

“When someone who is living on the streets wants to come in and we’re at capacity, we do provide them information about other service providers in the community, but if they’re at full capacity all we can do is give them that information and check back in tomorrow,” said Corey Leith, communications director for the Salvation Army of Austin. 

Salvation Army capacity: 

  • 242 beds at the downtown shelter
  • 81 beds at the Austin Shelter for Women and Children 
  • 106 single adults, 95 mothers with 205 children on the waitlist 

“People don’t want to be out when those temperature rises or when the temperature drops, so we do experience a lot of people calling on our waitlist to get into shelter, out of the dangerous weather that’s going on,” Leith said. 

The Salvation Army has also built the Rathgeber Center, a 212-bed shelter for families experiencing homelessness. The goal is to eventually move families in the downtown shelter to this new East Austin facility. Leaders of the nonprofit have decided to push back the opening date of the center to February 2020 as they continue vetting applicants to work there.

“Having a strategic and executable plan for staff and funding is crucial to ensure to longevity of our program for community and those experiencing homelessness from the day we open into perpetuity,” Leith said. 

Separately, representatives of Integral Care said because of their involvement with the City of Austin’s Guided Path Pilot Project, aimed at connecting people camping outside of the ARCH to housing and support services, their 15-bed Safe Haven shelter for veterans and crisis residential locations are at capacity.

Come Monday, Harper will be staying in the woods, out of public view. 

“It’s really not that hard or not that far of a fall to go from where people are standing in the comfort of their homes to where I’m standing on the street,” Harper said.