The Unfolding Crisis: A Timeline of Homelessness in Austin

2019: The Tipping Point

In June 2019, the Austin City Council, led by Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Greg Casar, voted to decriminalize public camping, sitting, and lying down. While intended to reduce arrests and fines for homeless individuals, the policy change resulted in a noticeable increase in homeless encampments across the city, especially in downtown areas and public parks. This sparked concerns about public safety and sanitation among residents and business owners.

Despite growing challenges, service providers like the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) and Front Steps worked hard to offer shelter, case management, and housing navigation services. However, the demand began to exceed available resources, hinting at the looming crisis.

2020: The Perfect Storm

COVID-19 Pandemic Hits

The COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 brought new hardships for Austin's homeless population. Following CDC guidelines to mitigate virus spread, the city allowed homeless encampments to remain in place and halted cleanups and evictions. While meant to protect public health, this decision unintentionally led to the growth and entrenchment of homeless camps throughout Austin.

Simultaneously, shelters like the Salvation Army and the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH) reduced capacity for social distancing, turning away individuals seeking refuge. This decreased bed availability, along with the pandemic's economic impact, forced more people onto the streets, despite efforts by Mobile Loaves & Fishes and Community First! Village to provide alternative housing.

Fentanyl Epidemic Surges

In 2020, the influx of cheap, potent fentanyl into Austin's drug market had tragic consequences for the homeless population. The Austin Police Department reported a sharp rise in fentanyl-related overdoses among the homeless, with weekly fatalities. The Austin Harm Reduction Coalition worked to distribute naloxone and raise awareness about fentanyl dangers, but the powerful opioid maintained its deadly grip.

The fentanyl epidemic strained resources of first responders and healthcare providers. Austin-Travis County EMS saw a significant increase in calls related to overdoses and drug-related emergencies among the homeless, overwhelming an already burdened system and emphasizing the need for comprehensive addiction treatment and support.

Camping Ban Reinstated

As the visible homelessness issue grew in 2020 into 2021, so did public frustration and political pressure. In May of 2021, Austin voters passed Proposition B, reinstating the ban on public camping, sitting, and lying down. Proponents like Save Austin Now argued it was necessary for public health and safety, while critics warned it would criminalize homelessness and push people into dangerous, hidden locations.

The camping ban's reinstatement created new challenges. Outreach teams from Integral Care and the Downtown Austin Community Court tried to connect individuals with shelter and housing before the ban took effect, but resources were insufficient. Many homeless individuals, afraid of arrest or citation, retreated into wooded areas, creek beds, and hidden spots, complicating service providers' outreach efforts.

2021-2022: The Hidden Emergency

Encampments Shift to Green Belts

As enforcement of the reinstated camping ban began, homeless encampments increasingly relocated to Austin's urban green belts like the Barton Creek Greenbelt and Roy G. Guerrero Colorado River Park. These wooded areas provided seclusion and protection from police sweeps but also generated new environmental and public health hazards.

Park rangers and watershed protection teams noted growing accumulations of trash, human waste, and drug paraphernalia in these fragile natural areas. The Watershed Protection Department and Austin Parks Foundation organized volunteer cleanups, but the problem's magnitude kept growing. The displacement of homeless individuals into green spaces endangered the environment and hindered outreach workers' ability to provide consistent services and support.

Suburban and Urban Camps Proliferate

Homeless encampments spread beyond Austin's green belts in 2021 and 2022. Makeshift shelters and camps emerged in various locations, including residential neighborhoods, highway underpasses, and commercial districts outside downtown. This proliferation of urban and suburban encampments brought the homelessness reality closer to many Austin residents.

Neighborhood associations and community groups, concerned about the growing presence of homeless camps in their areas, started organizing and demanding action from city officials. Some, like the North Austin Civic Association, pushed for increased police enforcement and camp removals, while others, like the South Austin Neighborhood Alliance, advocated for more proactive outreach and housing solutions. The rising tension between housed and unhoused residents highlighted the pressing need for a more comprehensive and equitable approach to the crisis.

Public Safety and First Responder Challenges Mount

As homeless encampments became more dispersed and hidden throughout Austin, public safety and first responder challenges intensified. The Austin Police Department reported a sharp increase in calls related to homeless individuals, including disturbances, assaults, and drug-related incidents. Officers faced difficulties navigating hazardous conditions in many camps, which often lacked basic sanitation and were littered with used needles and other debris.

Similarly, Austin-Travis County EMS and Austin Fire Department personnel encountered increasing challenges in responding to emergencies involving homeless individuals. The remote and cluttered nature of many encampments made it harder for first responders to locate and treat patients in crisis. In some cases, responders themselves were exposed to health and safety risks, including needle sticks and infectious diseases. These mounting challenges underscored the need for specialized training, protective equipment, and coordination among first responder agencies.

2024: The Crossroads

Real-Time Data Reveals the Full Picture

Nomadik's innovative approach to modeling and analyzing homelessness is providing a more comprehensive and up-to-date picture of the crisis in Austin. By leveraging AI-powered geospatial tools and crowdsourced data from the community, Nomadik is able to identify and monitor homeless encampments in real-time, revealing the true scale and complexity of the problem.

This granular, real-time data allows for a far clearer picture of the issues and the ease of use allows concerned community members to help address the problem with their smart phones. Austin as a whole now has access to detailed information about the location, size, and composition of homeless encampments, as well as the specific challenges and needs of the individuals living in them. This data-driven insight enables more targeted and effective interventions, from outreach and case management to cleanups and public safety responses.

Austin Faces a Choice

As the true scope and urgency of Austin's homelessness crisis becomes impossible to ignore, the city finds itself at a critical juncture. Policymakers, service providers, and community members alike must recognize that the path forward will require difficult trade-offs, significant resources, and a willingness to challenge long-held assumptions about what works and what does not.

Some, like the Austin Justice Coalition and Homes Not Handcuffs, argued for a major shift towards Housing First policies that prioritize permanent supportive housing over temporary shelters and encampments. Others, like the Downtown Austin Alliance, advocated for increased investments in mental health and substance abuse treatment, coupled with more aggressive enforcement of public safety laws.

Ultimately, the choice facing Austin is not between competing ideologies or interest groups, but between action and inaction, between evidence and inertia. With Nomadik's real-time data and the growing urgency of the crisis, the city has an unprecedented opportunity to forge a new path - one that combines the best of innovative technology, collaborative problem-solving, and community-driven solutions.