APD responds to growing homeless complaints beyond downtown

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

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Concerns appear to be growing about the homeless population beyond downtown. Viewer tips have led KXAN to sprawling camps close to homes in several south Austin areas. Thursday, those tips brought KXAN to the area of Manchaca and Ben White, where complaints have been rolling in for more than a year.

“The numbers of homeless has grown in this Southwood neighborhood,” Maria Solis told KXAN, who has called the neighborhood home for more than 20 years. She’s spent the last year trying to draw attention to homeless concerns.

Solis says an area church aims to provide assistance, but problems persist.

“They just kind of migrate from corner to corner,” she said, sharing that she’s been harassed in area parking lots. She wants something to be done. There’s just no easy answer of what.

“That’s the bitter pill,” Solis said. “There are some with mental health issues. I have no doubt there are some that are veterans. But then there’s a big number of young people that are just hanging out.”

KXAN’s Kylie McGivern sat down with Austin Police Chief Brian Manley to talk about the big picture and the challenges that come with addressing homeless concerns outside the city’s core.

“We have to distinguish between homelessness and the criminal transient element. Because there truly are a lot of individuals who are homeless just by circumstance. They’ve fallen on hard times, they’ve lost employment, they’ve become ill. A lot of them suffer from some kind of mental illness,” Manley explained. “And that is a completely different population than the criminal transients that we deal with, that are choosing that as a lifestyle.”

The goal is to connect the population with proper resources, largely concentrated downtown.

“Instead of having homeless individuals choose to live in camps, out in the city across the city, we really need to find a way to get them linked up in those areas where we have services for them and the shelters that are established to take care of them,” Manley said, for their safety and the safety of the neighborhoods they settle in.

Manley said they’ve seen success with the Homeless Outreach Street Team, but right now, that team is only downtown.

“As the need grows across the city, then this is something that we’re going to have to address and if we have to request additional officers to staff appropriately — to provide this level of service across the entire city — then that’s something that we’ll do,” Manley said.

It’s something Solis says would improve what’s been her experience.

So far this year, Austin 311 has received 5 homeless-related calls within a 200-foot radius of the Manchaca/Ben White intersection. It received 10 in the area last year.

“Nobody’s listening,” she says.

KXAN reached out to the area’s council representative, Ann Kitchen, who said beyond looking at each homeless camp individually, the city is working to take broader steps. For example, for the first time, it is including  “homelessness” in the strategic plan for budgeting. Kitchen says this is significant because rather than just throw dollars and ideas at what is clearly a problem, the city will look metrics and focus in on what it’s trying to accomplish and where.

“If all we did was look at each one of these homeless camps as they come up, all we’d be doing is moving the problems across the city,” she said.

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