AUSTIN, Texas — Near the corner of East Riverside Drive and Willow Creek Drive in East Austin lies a refuge for some, but a problem for others.
"It happens to be an area where a lot of drugs are dealt. Either they're purchased here [or] they're sold here. And it's an area for prostitution," Austin Police Sr. Ofc. Bino Cadenas told KVUE.
The Willow Creek tunnel has become a hotspot for crime over the years.
"There's a lot of robberies, and there have been instances where there have been shootings here in this area," Ofc. Cadenas said.
It's also become a concern for the Watershed Protection Department because a creek runs in and out of the tunnel, mixing with trash and human waste.
It's not just a danger to water quality, according to managing engineer Ramesh Swaminathean, but for the people who take shelter in there.
"When there's a flood or rainfall that comes into this box culverts, they're going to literally be trapped in there. It's going to result in potential loss of life or some other health issue," Swaminathean said.
Ofc. Cadenas gave KVUE's Pattrik Perez a tour of the other side of the culvert across the street, and the conditions are even worse.
"You'll find items here that belong to individuals that probably were used in robberies or thefts," Ofc. Cadenas said. "You'll see everything out here. Mattresses, comforters, chairs, personal items. Bicycles."
Swaminathean said the camp is one of nine spots his department will clean up within a few weeks as part of a pilot program.
"What we're trying to do is take a sort of a complete look at each of these sites and try to figure out a way that we can solve this problem both from a watershed mission area perspective and also from a humane service-oriented perspective," Swaminathean said.
As part of each cleanup, the city warns the people taking shelter at the camps about the cleanup ahead of time. Then, members from Integral Care provide services and shelter options.
In the case of the camp at the Willow Creek tunnel, it'll require more than a cleanup, like maintenance work and remediation.
"Then, we are looking at potentially doing some infrastructure changes into the culvert itself by installing some grating at the inlet and outlet, so that prevents access into the culvert for persons experiencing homelessness," Swaminathean said.
The entire project may take a few months.
"[This problem] has been going on for years, and now there's light at the end of the tunnel for us, so hopefully we'll get this issue resolved here in East Austin," Ofc. Cadenas said.