The Barton Creek Greenbelt as a Window Through Time

If you follow us or DASH on Twitter you’ve probably seen our coverage of the camp just south and up hill of Barton Creek on the Barton Creek Greenbelt. It’s not on any of the trails, but it does exist within the boundaries of the Greenbelt itself. This camp sits on the corner of Lamar and 360 behind the old Toys R Us, it is about 1 square kilometer in size and contains an estimated 100 tons of trash and debris. This camp popped up on the city’s radar when a fire broke out in the camp on March 2nd of 2024. Since then we have worked with DASH and our own outreach team to use this camp as a case study on how camps start, grow, evolve, draw the attention of the city, and subsequently are cleaned up and where everyone goes following the closure of the camp.

The large camp at the bottom is the camp this post refers to.

Over the past two months we’ve spent a considerable amount of time in the camp documenting what is going on and how the city is addressing it. We also spent time talking to those who live there about how they got there, how things have changed, and where they plan to go. We’ve spoken to some who have been homeless in Austin for over a decade who told us about the evolution of homelessness in our city. Prior to 2017-2019 homelessness in Austin was viewed in a much more positive light, there were even famous homeless people, adored by the city, such as Leslie Cochran. The media surrounding homelessness was more positive, there was hope in the city for helping those that were not viewed as hostile vagrants, but as neighbors who simply needed help getting back on their feet.

Estimated number of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in Austin (ECHO).

One resident of the camp told us how he used to live in an area near the Barton Creek Mall where he had an agreement with the city that he could live in the woods nearby as long as he cleaned up his own trash and whatever trash was found out in the area around him. He told us he found hundreds of used propane tanks, decades old at this point, that took him years to finally clear out. Every week he would take his trash and whatever propane tanks he had collected over the week and place them at a designated spot by the street and the city would come collect the trash. In 2020 COVID-19 hit the US, the city shut down all of the shelters and reduced outreach and city services to stop the spread, pushing everyone back onto the streets. At the same time Fentanyl was taking off in the US, contributing to a sharp rise in overdoses and replacing the previous drugs plaguing the homeless community. These were coupled with a sharp rise in the homeless population to include, as the same resident told us, people who came in and for one reason or another started trashing camps that had previously been clean by comparison.

These compounding factors have lead to the situation we see today: out of control camps effectively creating land fills in the greenbelts, a sharp rise in violence out of the community, and an animosity from the general population towards the homeless community. After the fire in March the city came in and put up notices around the camp to tell residents it was being shut down for cleanup. The city is not allowed to shut down a camp unless they have enough beds to support the entire population of the camp, in this case somewhere around 40-50 beds. While some residents went to housing others decided to pack up and leave, some that took beds only used them for showers but still remained in the camp. Those who did not take the beds did so for a variety of reasons, some were unable to go to the shelter as they did not want to give up their pets, some told us that the shelter was often times more dangerous than the streets, and some just wanted to live outside. It has been two months since the city “shut down” the camp to clean it up. There are still people living out there, the city did not even come out to clean in earnest for several weeks causing some of those that had moved out to move back into the camp.

An abandoned tent complex inside the camp.

When the city did show up they brought heavy equipment. Below is a topographic map of the camp, the camp sits on an extremely steep hill south of Barton Creek, making the use of heavy equipment an extreme challenge. They initially cleared the area directly behind the parking lot behind the Toys R Us and the apartment complex with a bulldozer collecting roughly 8.6 tons of trash and debris. The area they cleaned was about the width of a 2 lane road along the top most part of the slope around the areas mentioned previously. The city then did not return for another few weeks, where in that time new comers showed up and undid all of the work the city had previously done. The city showed back up again the week of April 29th and cleaned the area again, along with areas below the initial cleaning area where they could get the bulldozer down to.

Topographic map of the camp.

Having spent considerable time in the camp with DASH we can tell you that the areas with the worst debris fields are much farther down in the camps as is shown with red circles in the topographic map above. If you follow DASH you have seen how steep the trails are in the camp, but while the bulldozers may be able to handle steep inclines the camp is also nestled in the trees, trees close enough together to prevent a bulldozer from moving freely. The city has claimed they are unable to use heavy machinery due to endangered species in the area. To clean this camp would require hundreds of people.

A gnome mask tied to a tree in the camp.

A question we at Nomadik have is how does this camp, uphill from Barton Creek affect Barton creek itself? Does runoff from the debris, trash, and hazardous waste effect the water that feeds Barton Springs? On May 9th we set out to collect the data required to answer this question. As it turns out the creek is completely dry, suffering from a 2, almost 3 year drought. There are one or two areas of standing water from the recent rains and a stream that feeds the creek, creating a small pond from the pond just below the 650 mark on the topographic map above, but nothing more. While we did take samples from these areas that had water, none of them were in an area where the camp runoff would reach them. So we hiked up the ravine that goes into the middle of the camp to see how far down the debris had come, given that where the ravine meets the creek we saw no trash. The further up the ravine we went the more trash we found, stuck in fallen trees that had built up natural silt barriers with detritus.

Hiking Barton Creek to collect data.

While the current state of Barton Creek has staved off the potential for hazardous waste, trash, and debris from flowing down to Barton Springs and Lady Bird Lake the state of affairs doesn’t seem to be changing at a pace that may one day lead to this outcome. This is just a single camp, near a single creek in Austin. We have over 180 documented camps, with a large number of them existing in green spaces near the creeks, streams, and rivers that flow through our city. When a camp this size is closed, the residents who do not enter housing have to go somewhere else, the portion that contributed to the mess in the first place simply do the same thing somewhere else, creating a feedback loop that the city is constantly playing catch up on. Nomadik set out to use advances in data science over the last several years and methodologies previously siloed in completely separated industries to better understand the homeless problem and empower those that directly work in the space every day: first responders, non-profits, the city, and every day citizens. To do this requires far more than “introducing tech to a new industry” or building an app, it requires a sense of civic duty to get out into the city to do the ground work that will lead to Austin becoming a shining example of cities in the United States.

P.S. Do not try to take short cuts on the Barton Creek Greenbelt, while they may be short, there are also 150 foot cliffs.

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