Growing concerns about South Austin homeless camp after employee threatened

A business owner in South Austin said one of his employees was threatened by a homeless man living under the bridge at Ben White Boulevard and Pack Saddle Pass. 

He's fed up with the growing camp there and is pleading for city leaders to help fix the problem that is spreading throughout Austin. “There's mini cities going on right under the bridge,” said Clint Strait, co-owner of Strait Music Company.

“My employees don't feel safe to walk from here, in broad daylight, from here to Central Market, because, in between those two, there's a colony of people and there's things going on that are not safe. I just think that's a shame,” Strait added.  

Tuesday, one of Strait’s employees was threatened by a homeless man carrying a large stick. 

“That was just the final straw for me,” said Strait. 

Disruptions in his store, as well as syringes and human feces on the property are not uncommon. He feels that's creates a safety issue for employees and customers alike. “I think there's big picture issues here that I'm not capable of solving, however, as a tax paying business owner, I just don't feel like it's acceptable right now,” Strait said. 

Assistant Chief Justin Newsom, with the Austin Police Department, said officers can enforce camping laws or trespassing laws, and sometimes do, while they clean up the area, but it's not a long-term solution. “When they get out of jail tomorrow, they're still a citizen of Austin, they still have to exist somewhere, and so they go right back to the same place,” Newsom said.  

“They give us a little lecture about, ‘Why are you here?’ And, ‘You've got to go.’ And there's nowhere to go. And then, it's like oh well, we just stay,” said Kristin Harrington who has lived under the bridge in South Austin for a few months now.  

With nowhere to go, people living under the bridge said they feel safer in a group. “I've only been able to make my living because of the other homeless people. We help each other out, we feed each other, clothe each other, hygiene, you name it, and we help each other survive,” Harrington said.  

Police said the camp doesn't make people surrounding the area any less safe. 

“I cannot draw a correlation between homeless camps and crime,” said Newsom.  

Homeless advocacy group Ending Community Homelessness Coalition said they're doing all they can, but they're desperate for resources. Currently, programs are full and money is short. Austin needs to double both, they said, in order to get more people off the street and into housing. 

In the meantime, police expect calls about the homeless population to keep pouring in. “Being homeless is not a crime, however, homelessness is probably the highest complaint citywide,” Newsom said. As people all over the city learn to live with growing camps creeping closer to their own backyard. 

“We're a growing community, just like any other neighborhood or fine fancy restaurant chain, and we deserve to be treated equally just as well,” said Harrington. 

ECHO said anyone willing to donate housing to people experiencing homeless can contact them. 

They estimate the city needs about $30 million more to fix the problem. 

City Council said helping solve the homeless crisis is their number one priority in 2019.