APD, EMS work to solve public health, safety, housing problems at Willow Creek Tunnel

Eight people have been arrested for trespassing, some camping in the Willow Creek tunnel, a no-trespassing zone that runs under East Riverside Drive. 

The Austin Police Department’s Region III RISE Team, a Department of Justice-funded team of specialized officers dedicated to the Riverside area, identified the tunnel as a hot spot for drugs, prostitution, and violent crime. The arrests come after weeks of outreach efforts, where the team and EMS worked to connect those living in the tunnel, to resources.

SPO John Nelson, one of the six officers on the RISE team, says there are eight to ten people living in the tunnel at any given time, with a handful of others often passing through involved in prostitution and drugs. 

“Some of that is other actors preying upon the homeless population living in the tunnel. They’re like selling narcotics to the end-user,” he explained. 

Across the street from the tunnel stands La Michoacana Meat Market. 

“We don’t discriminate or anything. We’re trying to help out the community as much as we can, but it also gets to the point where we also want the community to be safe,” explained manager Rocio Velazquez. 

Velazquez says for the past year the store has battled safety concerns, as some of the people who live in or pass through the tunnel show up at the store intoxicated and others steal. 

“We ask them to leave but they start getting aggressive, that’s when we have to call the police,” Velazquez said. 

She says she and her employees have been threatened and she fears retaliation for seeking out law enforcement. 

“They say ‘okay I’ll be waiting for you outside’ and sometimes [employees] have to leave at different hours to make sure they’re not being targeted or they know the hours they work with us," Velazquez said.

Soon Velazquez and her co-workers may see a change. 

Last week community paramedics were able to help 31 people with everything from medical to housing assistance. 

This Saturday after weeks of outreach and letting people know it was illegal to camp in the tunnel, police say they had to start making arrests. There were eight in total. 

“Only three of those individuals I believe were actual individuals experiencing homelessness who had been contacted before and were residing in the tunnel. Other individuals were there, passing or going into the tunnel to conduct drug transactions, prostitution transactions, or just other criminal activity,” Nelson explained. 

On Wednesday the city’s watershed protection department is going to begin cleaning up the tunnel. They aim to have a barrier over the tunnel blocking human entry by summertime. 

“There are places they can camp legally right now with the way the city ordinances are set up but the tunnel is not an option. It’s a flood hazard,” said Nelson, explaining how the tunnel is split in two. One tunnel typically has less water, so that’s used for camping. The other is used for “dumping all of their trash and waste, and from what we’ve observed there’s containers of urine and feces...” 

When it rains, that waste is washed into Lady Bird Lake. 

“It’s also a health risk as well,” he said. 

Velazquez says she believes the tunnel clean-up is positive and just hopes those living there move on to better conditions. 

“I just hope they don’t go somewhere else where it’s gonna be a little bit even worse than living under that tunnel right there. It’s not livable to live under there. I know there’s a lot of options for them, I just hope we can give them the help they need,” she said.