South Austin neighbors fear encroaching homeless camp

Homeless camp in South Austin has neighbors on edge (KXAN Photo)
Homeless camp in South Austin has neighbors on edge (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — As city officials focus their attention on ways to serve and get a grip on Austin’s growing homeless population, KXAN is hearing from more areas with problems, including a spot off William Cannon Drive in south Austin where neighbors say they don’t feel safe.

Below the bustle of traffic, on the other side of the train tracks, you’ll find signs of life, now encroaching on nearby neighborhoods.

“I would say I noticed it about 6 months back, where it looked like there was a full blown camp there,” Abraham Cazares, who lives on Bissel Circle, said. The camp has bled over to a bigger burden for the new father. An unsecured easement between the back of his home and the William Cannon overpass.

“Looking back there and seeing the activity, I can tell you that you don’t feel safe,” he said, voicing concerns about the easement serving as a potential pipeline for crime. Last month, after months of calling and emailing 311, Austin Code, APD and his district representative about the public safety issue, those concerns were realized.

His neighbor’s home was burglarized in December. “They just hopped right over here and then they broke the picket,” Robert Dominguez said, pointing to his fence. He said the burglars, beyond the belongings, took something bigger.

“Your peace of mind and sense of security,” Dominguez said. “Now we’re sleeping with the bedroom door locked.”

He and Cazares agree the easement provides an escape route, saying the easy access invites crime. “The stress — it’s hard to put into words,” Cazares said. “Are we safe while we sleep?”

The biggest problem, he said, is getting to the bottom of who is responsible for cleaning up the area and barricading the easement. For more than a month, his complaint was funneled to incorrect city departments from 311, before finally landing in Austin Code’s office in November. The concerns touch on a cross-section of departments, from Austin Code to Austin police to Union Pacific Railroad, who owns a portion of the property.

While Cazares said APD has been responsive with checking the area and talking to transient individuals, he expected more from city officials to address the other gaps, like ways to clean up and close off the area.

“Not reaching out to us, not following up with us in a timely manner, it just makes you feel neglected, like we don’t matter,” Cazares said. “I know the city’s growing. We don’t expect things to be done within days or weeks.but months have passed and no progress, no updates. How else are you supposed to feel?”

Council Member Ann Kitchen’s office has now assured him it would stay on top of progress in the area. Austin Code says it plans to coordinate with APD and Union Pacific Railroad to set up a cleanup plan.

The city insists if you have any concerns in your area to call Austin 311. KXAN reached out to 311 to see if the number of complaints regarding the homeless has gone up in recent years. We learned the department received 490 service requests for APD using the word “homeless” in 2015 and nearly 100 requests using the word “transient.”

In 2016, calls using the word “homeless” increased 45 percent, to more than 700 requests. Requests using the word “transient” were up 27 percent from the year before.

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