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TxDOT cleaning up homeless camps under Austin highways

A bucket of needles was found during a homeless camp clear out in S. Austin on Wednesday (Photo: CBS Austin)

The Texas Department of Transportation is working with the Austin Police Department to clear out debris from homeless camps that pop up under highways in the city.

TxDOT is concentrating on camps on I-35, 290, and Hwy 71.

Callers reported a large camp being cleaned out on Wednesday morning at Ben White Blvd. and Manchaca.

Since 2015, TxDOT has been the operating agency for Austin's cleanup crews. According to TxDOT, because the city surpasses a certain capacity, the cleanup responsibility is passed onto Austin starting in March. The crews that are currently contracted to do the cleanup won't change when the city takes over.

On Wednesday, crews were picking up dozens of trailer loads worth of trash throughout south Austin. At Ben White and South Lamar, workers showed us an empty paint can filled with used heroin needles.

"We find everything," said cleanup crew member Jason Goldsmith. "Needles, guns, knives."

Austin Police officers helped escort the crews and keep them from getting assaulted by the homeless. Senior Officer Joshua Visi said during the operation, APD doesn't have authority to remove homeless from an area but they do ask them to temporarily move so crews can clean up any trash in the area.

At times, part of the mobile crew involves people who give the homeless an opportunity for a better future. "We will bring Travis County Integral Care out with us, that is an organization that helps folks that are in this situation to get out of this situation," said Visi.

The crews in South Austin on Wednesday were in Council Member Ann Kitchen's district. "No question we have to continue with cleanups," said Kitchen.

Last week, the Austin City Council passed her resolution to expedite an emergency shelter along with services to connect homeless to housing no later than September. "We have to have more permanent solutions. Cleanups are necessary but that is not a long-term solution. A long-term solution are places for people to be while we connect them to services," said Kitchen.

While the city plans to revamp the ARCH downtown, the city council is conducting a nationwide search to hire an executive just to focus on homelessness.

Kitchen said that person is slated to start by the end of the month. "The reason that's important, that will give us the expertise, the dedicated time and resources to accelerate what we've been doing so far," she said.

City staff is expected to bring proposed sites for permanent housing before council by May.


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