On a late February afternoon, cold winds tore through the Responsible Adult Transition Town in Southeast Austin, thrashing the tarpaulin and nylon walls of its tent village. But the chill didn’t deter Robert Rhodes from making his rounds.
This was the last day to work on a plan that, he thought, could save his community.
Abbott said the city wasn’t managing its homeless population effectively. He offered an unused Texas Department of Transportation maintenance yard, miles from downtown and out of sight of almost everyone, as part of a solution.
In the beginning, fewer than a dozen people lived there. Residents report there was no food for the first couple days. They say a law enforcement officer assigned to the camp bought them pizza with money from his own pocket. There was also no way of leaving if you didn't have a car.
But people soon organized. They formed an ad hoc governing board and began running citizens watch patrols to discourage thieves. Austin’s transit agency established bus service. Nonprofits and church groups also filled the void, delivering food and other items.
“Back in the day, lepers were not allowed into the city,” said Sean Brinkley, a minister whose church group has donated materials. “This reminds me of modern-day lepers. People [who have] been moved out of the city that nobody wants to come touch.”
As remote as the camp is, the fact that it is a state-sanctioned place to live has allowed residents to view it as a longer-term solution to their housing challenges. The place is now home to around 145 people. Some of them, like Rhodes, are eager to build a self-managed community there, a “city within a city,” as he calls it.
That’s what made this cold February morning so important. The next day, the Texas Transportation Commission would vote on a plan to transfer the lease of the camp to a group called ATX Helps. The nonprofit created by the Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Austin Alliance proposed building a 300-bed Sprung tent shelter there.
ATX Helps says the shelter would bring more beds for Austin's homeless population. But Rhodes, one of the camp's original residents, said he's worried it would mean an end to plans to make Camp R.A.T.T. a model of autonomous homeless living.
“I want to take it to the moon and past,” he said. “I want to get this thing so everybody knows us – statewide, citywide, countrywide – to see that us homeless people are not what everybody thinks. That we are real human beings.”
Under the guidance of Kent Dahlgren, who runs an Austin tech company focused on app-based self-government, Rhodes and his group started organizing a nonprofit to make a counteroffer on the lease. Their plan was to charge everyone at the camp $1 a month for rent. That would create a total rent of about $145 a month, more than ATX Helps was bidding.
“Everybody knows that money talks and bullshit walks,” Rhodes said.
The group also planned to provide other amenities: bus passes, so people could come and go; warm showers; a propane grill to replace the oil-drum wood fire the residents cook on.
Rhodes’ mission the day before the transportation committee vote was to spread awareness of his plan.
The communal cooking fire was Rhodes' first stop that morning. Three people gathered around it, frying sausage patties and boiling a pot of cowboy coffee (whole coffee beans in water).
Rhodes told them about bringing in a propane grill, and they discussed the possibility of converting a sealed-off building at the camp into office space or showers.
Nobody there said they wanted the tent shelter. The fact is, many of Austin’s homeless people prefer to live outside of shelters even when beds are available inside.
“We’d rather build [the camp] up like we're doing now,” said a young woman named Mika (many people at the camp preferred not to share their full names). “We don’t want no big old thing for everybody to be separated from their significant others.”
Fear of separation was one of the top reasons residents said they opposed the shelter. In Austin, homeless shelters are generally segregated by gender. Men can try to find a bed at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless; women, at the Austin Shelter for Women and Children.
A desire for autonomy was another reason. Shelters have curfews. They don’t allow pets. Many Camp R.A.T.T. residents, including Rhodes, have dogs.
People also spoke of how much they disliked sleeping in a room with a large group of strangers.
The tent “is not going to work out well for people that have anxiety problems,” a woman who went by the name Mouse told me on an earlier visit.
“We don’t want that tent here,” Rhodes said after leaving the fire. "It’s gonna end up looking like the ARCH or the Salvation Army," he said, referring to two of Austin's largest shelters.
ATX Helps, the nonprofit group supported by the Austin business community, says that's not its goal.
“The objective of the ATX Helps shelter is to reduce as many barriers to entry as possible,” said Bill Bryce, vice president of investor relations with the Downtown Austin Alliance. “Whether that is that they may have a pet, whether they have some sort of substance use or behavioral health condition, whether they have a spouse or a partner with them.”
But even if ATX Helps achieves those goals, it seems likely that many residents of Camp R.A.T.T. would oppose a shelter. Opposition appears so strong, in fact, that different groups at the camp have independently organized against it.
On his walk, Rhodes learned of a petition a separate group of residents had been circulating.
“We the residents were never consulted on this plan and have our own vision for this community,” it reads in part.
Like in most communities, not all shelter at Camp R.A.T.T. is created equally.
The vast majority of people there live in tents, pitched on a vast asphalt lot on the southeastern section of the yard.
The tents can be damaged by wind and flood in the rain. (Brinkley’s group donated pallets to try to elevate tents above the rainwater, but residents are converting them into fencing.)
At the front part of the camp, closer to Highway 183, others live in more desirable storage bays. When a tent is pitched inside one of the bays, it is better protected from the weather. Hanging a tarp over the entrance also makes the shelter more private and slightly more secure.
It was in this part of the camp that Rhodes met his first supporter of the ATX Helps shelter.
Kay would give only her first name. She lives in a bay with her son, who attends an Austin high school.
“I’m for it,” she laughed when Rhodes asked her opinion.
She said the tent shelter could provide her and her son with air conditioning, showers and laundry services.
“That’s gonna end up looking like the ARCH,” Rhodes insisted. “They want to make sure you come in at a certain time. We want more freedom here.”
“But freedom gives everybody else the freedom to do whatever they want,” Kay replied. “You got prostitution going on out here, you got drug dealing going on out here … overdoses.”
For Kay, the lack of security became a bigger concern when people with babies began living at the camp. She said she was not convinced residents could organize their own security.
“You’re voicing your opinion,” Rhodes said. “Me and you can still be best friends.”
The next day, the Texas Transportation Commission met in the Dewitt C. Greer building in downtown Austin, about an 8-mile drive from Camp R.A.T.T.
Rhodes arrived with his dog, Buster, and Dahlgren while the commission discussed an expansion of I-35.
“I’m kind of nervous,” he said, coming in from a smoke break. “It’s been a long time since I’ve spoken to a huge audience.”
The commission heard a staff presentation on the land deal. They saw pictures of the kind of large tent shelter ATX Helps envisioned installing and a slide showing a tweet from the governor imploring Austin to take the lease.
Then Rhodes walked to the front to the room. He told the commission about the work he’d done at the camp and the counterproposal on the lease his group was offering.
"I just want you guys to accept our offer because we are working really hard on this,” he said.
“Is that all?” he asked, when greeted with silence.
The commission voted unanimously to award the lease to ATX Helps.
Bryce says ATX Helps still needs to raise millions of dollars before shelter construction can begin.
When asked whether camp residents would be removed from the land, he said work on the shelter “should provide minimal disruption to the rest of the site.”
In the meantime, he said his group would begin a conversation with the people on the site.
"We would hope and welcome all those folks to come into the shelter," he said.
But Rhodes thinks a lot of people will move out.
“There’s other people out there like myself that don’t like being in shelters,” he said.
As he spoke, a second group of Camp R.A.T.T. residents arrived at the commission meeting with their petition. But it was too late to present it; the vote had already been made.
The woman carrying the petition gave her name as Laurie.
“I’ve got a feeling I’m gonna be [living] back in the woods,” she said when she learned of the vote.
She said she was disappointed, but that the state had never really delivered on the promise of Camp R.A.T.T. to begin with.
“It was my understanding this was going to be a transitional thing, thus Camp R.A.T.T. In the name, it’s a transitional town,” she said. “We’ve been showering in packing crates with a garden hose, waiting for the governor to pay attention to his pet project.”