Students arriving for classes at the University of Texas are now also arriving to the sight of homeless people camping along the crowded school sidewalks, thanks to a recent decision by the Austin City Council. However, UT’s police chief is now calling on Austin’s mayor to retract the new law.
Last week, UT Police Chief David Carter wrote an open letter to Mayor Steve Adler and the city council urging them to reverse parts of their new homeless camping law. The city council passed a resolution in June allowing homeless people to camp, sit, and lie in public spaces, a decision that has since sparked intense community backlash.
“I request that the Council work to improve public safety by prohibiting camping by members of the public in areas along the entire perimeter of campus, as well as in the area west of campus where many students live, work, and gather,” Carter’s letter read. “Indeed, police frequently respond to predatory and harassing behavior along the “Drag” and other areas along the perimeter of campus where UT students, staffers, and faculty members often feel threatened and where some of the homeless community are victims themselves.”
Carter continued, saying that the public safety risk is especially alarming in the west campus area, one of the densest neighborhoods in the city.
“Large numbers of students, faculty members, and staff members travel on foot throughout the day and night, and permitting camping, sitting, and lying down in those areas poses similar public health and safety risk. The City has a responsibility … to recognize that the interface of young students and some subsets of the homeless community have created potential dangers. This view is not based on discriminatory practices, but, rather, on real-world experiences of members of the UT community.”
UTPD received 171 calls last year involving homeless crime and 147 so far this year, though Carter said there are likely even more disturbances that were not reported. As past incidents of homeless crime around campus have shown, these disturbances pose significant safety risks; a freshman dance student, Haruka Weiser, was killed by a homeless person in 2016.
Since the council’s decision, there has been a predictable emergence of campsites and trash in public spaces throughout the city, as well as intensified public safety concerns. After an onslaught of public response, several packed townhalls, and a petition with nearly 29,000 signatures so far, the council is now considering reversing parts of the law.
Mayor Adler addressed the UT issue at a recent homelessness public forum, somewhat downplaying the concern.
“I understand the issue in respect to the ‘Drag,’” Adler said, “but I also know, ’cause I went to UT, that this is not a new challenge at the University of Texas.”
However, in a released statement directly in response to Chief Carter’s letter, Adler said he appreciated the chief’s input.
“The Council will consider homelessness action at our next regular council meeting in September, as we indicated we would in June, taking into account the important input we’re getting from the [City] Manager and across the community.”