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'I know we can do better as a city' | South Austin business owners nervous as homeless encampments pop up

Owners at South Town Square say they're losing business and have made several pleas to the City.

AUSTIN, Texas — Several homeless encampments have popped up behind shops at South Town Square in South Austin, driving business and customers away, according to some owners in the shopping center.

Larry Maddalena owns The Joint Chiropractic franchise and Craig Plakis owns CraigO's Pizza & Pastaria.

Both explained their businesses have been dealing with safety and security issues ever since they have noticed more people experiencing homelessness settling behind the shopping center.

Maddalena said he first noticed the issue back in 2020 and 2021, and although for a while many unhoused people cleared out, in the last nine months, it has only gotten worse.

"The homeless passing through the shopping center have gotten more aggressive. They've yelled at patients walking in and out the door, and they've come into the clinic and confronted our staff," Maddalena said. 

Maddalena added that businesses' expenses have increased because they've added security and lighting, which has forced them to up their prices.

Maddalena and Plakis said they have reached out to the City of Austin and Mayor Pro Tem Paige Ellis, who represents the area (District 8), but they have only been ignored. 

"They have not come over to walk the green belt to see what's truly going on back there," Maddalena said.

"We want them to do what they said they were going to do, and that's clean that up. You know, there's places for these folks to go," Plakis added.

KVUE reached out to Ellis's office on Thursday about the owners' concerns. In a statement, Ellis wrote: 

"I take these concerns seriously and have always opposed camping in parks and greenbelts. My office was first contacted by South Town Square business owners about the encampment in November, and we've since been working with the Parks and Recreation Department, the Homeless Strategy Office, Austin Resource Recovery, and the City Manager's Office to address these concerns. PARD and ARR have already conducted a joint environmental clean-up effort in the encampment and removed nearly two tons of debris. This significantly reduced wildfire risks and other health hazards for the unhoused in the area. My office has advocated to HSO to prioritize this location and safely relocate the unhoused in the area into temporary housing and connect them with appropriate resources. I remain committed to communicating proactively with appropriate City departments to ensure the safety of both our unhoused and housed neighbors."

-Mayor Pro Tem Paige Ellis, District 8

KVUE also talked to Martin Cross, who was staying at the encampment Thursday. He explained he, like many others, is just trying to make it.

"I'm dying out here ... Most of my friends have died out here," Cross said. "[I] stand out there by the light so I can eat today."

The City also released a statement about the encampment concerns at South Town Square:

“The City is aware of the encampment at this location. Staff at the Homeless Strategy Division and Austin Police Department have been in regular communication with the anchor tenant in the nearby shopping center, and remain available to other local business owners to hear concerns and mitigate negative impacts in advance of the eventual resolution of the encampment. The City also encourages residents to utilize Austin 3-1-1 to report non-emergency service requests and to call 9-1-1 for emergency situations and crime related matters as they occur. A public health and safety assessment has been completed for this encampment. Austin Resource Recovery has carried out significant debris removal in the area, and the assessment puts the location in queue to be further addressed by the Homeless Encampment Management (HEM) Team.” - City of Austin Spokesperson 

City officials also added that, according to the The Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) and Austin/Travis County’s Continuum of Care Lead Agency, there are about more than 3,800 people who are experiencing homelessness.

They mentioned there are a number of organizations that provide services and since 2021, the City has moved nearly 500 unhoused people from encampments.

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