Austin homeless camps

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– A fire…underground.

Cell phone video from early Sunday morning shows smoke coming from manholes and storm drains at Riverside and Willow Creek Drive.

Firefighters found mattresses and other debris burning.

The cause: undetermined according to AFD.

The storm drain tunnel there at Willow Creek  is a homeless camp.  On Tuesday morning there were still some people living under there.  

Last week, days before the fire, Austin City Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria toured a couple of tunnel camps with Austin Police, including that one.

“I was very surprised of what I found, I mean just the massive trash that’s littered all over the place, getting into our waterway,” Renteria said.  

Council Member Renteria says police told the tunnel-dwellers to leave.

“They got ‘no trespassing’ signs down there.  They tell them to leave but they come back,” Renteria said.  

He says a woman reached for what appeared to be a gun but officers later determined it was a fake.

“I was just so grateful that she didn’t get shot.  It was just so amazing how our police officers handled the situation,” he said.

Renteria documented his experience with his cell phone.  In addition to the trash there were mattresses, carpets being used as partitions and lit candles.

“When I was going through there I was blowing them out because I didn’t want anything to catch on fire and then I read and saw on the news that it actually had a fire down there and I was like ‘Wow I just knew,'” he said.

We spoke with an Austin Police Sgt. by phone.  He told me homelessness in the Riverside area has increased exponentially in the last couple of years, likely as more people move away from the ARCH in search of services or opportunities.  He says the tunnels are problematic.  

The Sgt. says officers frequently go into the storm drains to warn the homeless about the dangers of being there — mainly flash flooding.

Council Member Ann Kitchen says camps are an issue in District 5 as well.

“I could name the Pack Saddle area at 290, we’ve also been talking with neighbors in the Southpark Meadows area and areas under I-35 and Slaughter,” Kitchen said.

If Austin Police only advise the homeless not to be in certain places, what else can be done?  What can Council do?

“Well I can tell you one thing that we know, we just absolutely flat out know we need and that’s more immediate help, more immediate places to stay, more immediate shelter and services so the people have a safe place to be,” Kitchen said.

Council Member Kitchen says she’s working on a Council resolution to that effect.

As far as the tunnel camps, Renteria says he’s spoken with City Manager Spencer Cronk.  He says it’s going to have to be a team effort between departments like Watershed Protection, Resource Recovery and Austin Police.

“Police officers don’t clean up things.  That’s not their job.  So we need to just gather all these departments together so we can go down there and clean up all this,” Renteria said.

By the way, included in the City’s budget this year is $2.4 million for homeless programs.