AUSTIN (KXAN) — The number of calls involving the homeless and transient community reported to the University of Texas at Austin Police Department has substantially increased over the last five years. The calls coming in have been both on and off campus.
“What we’re seeing, I think our numbers highlight that more individuals have come into this area,” said UTPD Chief David Carter.
Carter noted that many of these incidents are occurring off campus.
“The city of Austin is also looking at the issue, is there sufficient lighting? Are there conditions on campus that create an environment that is conducive for disorder? Or crime? Or fear of crime?” Carter said, referencing the West Campus lighting survey the city is presently conducting.
Carter explained that after a homeless individual assaulted a UT student two weeks ago, UT and APD have been working together to make sure both departments know about the various crimes they’re coming across in the West Campus area.
2017 YTD: 145
“One of the things that we certainly recognized before, we didn’t know right away that a student had been assaulted off campus,” Carter said of the assault in late October. “But the fact that we didn’t know right away, we reviewed the communication protocols with APD–who are our partners.”
Previously APD, which handles 911 calls off-campus, would only tell UTPD about incidents that fell under the guidelines of the Clery Act.
“The last assault that was reported, which was a great concern to the UT community, didn’t actually fit the definitions within the Clery because of the fact that it wasn’t a major assault,” Carter said. “So, what we’ve asked to do and APD is going to do as well, is share any time there is a violent interaction between two people whether it involves a UT student or not, and share it if it’s in the area known as West Campus.”
As for why the number of homeless individuals around campus is increasing, Carter says he believes changes in the city play a role.
“The city of Austin has several initiatives in the downtown area and in some ways the individuals who may have been around the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, known as the ARCH, some of them may have drifted up into the University of Texas area,” Carter said, referring to the city’s efforts in recent months to address the overcrowding near the ARCH.
Carter added that UTPD works with community resources like Integral Care’s Mobile Crisis Outreach Team to get help to homeless individuals in distress near campus.
Austin Police Department’s Assistant Chief Ely Reyes, who oversees the North Patrol Bureau, which includes UT, said his officers have not seen an increase in the homeless population in West Campus. But unlike UTPD, APD does not document each call or contact involving a homeless or transient individual.
Reyes noted that there are many churches and non-profits near West Campus providing resources for the homeless.
“We get a lot of anecdotal evidence from parents and advocates about safety in the West Campus area, but then when we look at our statistics, it doesn’t support the anecdotal evidence we’re getting,” Reyes said. “What we’d like to do is if a student sees some criminal activity to make sure they’re reporting it to the police department and not just tweeting about it and putting it on Instagram.”
Reyes noted that overall serious crimes are down in West Campus this year, there have been 393 so far as compared to 602 for the same time period last year and 725 in 2015.
Much of that decrease comes from a massive drop in the number of burglaries of vehicles, the department has seen 63 so far this year compared to 158 in the same time period last year and 263 in 2015.
However certain crimes are seeing a slight increase in West Campus, so far this year there have been 12 instances of Aggravated Assault (non-family violence) so far this year, five in the same time period in 2016, and nine in 2014. There have been 13 rapes reported in West Campus so far in 2017, 10 reported in the same time period in 2016, and 9 reported in 2015.
Reyes said his department has see an increase in reporting of crimes in West Campus, particularly sexual assaults. He believes the increase in reporting is due to both APD outreach and social media.
In fact, Reyes believes the area around the UT campus is very safe.
His department is also trying to better serve the densely-populated West Campus area by launching bike patrol and foot patrol units there. UTPD also launched a full bike patrol unit in West Campus this year.
“We believe that through our increased presence that we will increase safety for everyone in West Campus,” Reyes said. “We think that by improving the walk-ability, and the bike-ability and the lighting, that will increase safety overall.”
Back at UTPD, Chief Carter said that it will likely take time to make changes so that everyone in West Campus feels safer getting around.
“But the point is there is a lot of attention to this, as long as the students know to share information with us, if they come across a situation looks dangerous, we want them to call us so we can address that,” Carter said.
He added that the SURE Walk and SURE Ride services are helpful resources for students who may feel unsafe.
SURE Walk offers walks and rides for students after 7 p.m. (all for free) through a student run program. In 2016, the program introduced golf carts, that semester they gave 3,000 rides. In the spring of 2017, the program gave 12,000 rides, and this semester they are on pace to give 15,000 rides.
“I think students who are desiring to have that kind of peace of mind and who may feel a little nervous walking home late at night or walking on their own late at night, do use our service to feel safer on those walks,” said Holden Hopkins, associate director of the SURE Walk program.
He thinks part of the dramatic increase in demand for SURE Walk is that more people are aware of the program, and part of it comes from how much safety has become an growing point of discussion for the UT community.
In order to accommodate the growing demand for this safe transportation, SURE Walk is fundraising to bring in two more golf carts.