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Tunnel under Riverside in East Austin shows ‘city-wide’ homeless problem

Police give tours of homeless camps in East Austin to KVUE. The experience was eye-opening, and leads to the question: How do we fix it?

AUSTIN, Texas — "It's almost like a little hotel down here," said Lt. Frank Rodriguez, with Austin Police Department, as he ducked into the tunnel under East Riverside Drive. 

Austin Police Department Region 3 posted a video on Facebook showing a council member's ridealong with their team, focusing on two homeless camps.

"Normally, people don't see it," said Rodriguez. "People go to work, go to school, take care of their business. They're not the ones under the bridges to see what's going on. It's almost like a different world."

Rodriguez is face-to-face with this problem a lot on East Riverside. However, he said it's not just on this stretch of road. 

"It's not an East Riverside problem, it's not an East Austin problem, it's a city-wide problem," Rodriguez said. "It takes a lot of policemen hours just dealing with this."


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He said they work to make sure the people know they have options for help.

"Instead of us arresting him, we’re able to take him to the sobering center," he said. "Where if we take him to jail, he’s just going to come out of there four hours later or something like that. If we take him to the sobering center, they can actually try to help him get off that drug or that alcohol for a long-term solution, so that he doesn’t come back to the addiction."

Rodriguez called it a "vicious cycle" that doesn't have an easy solution. 

He explained police often learn about the homeless camps through community members' complaints. However, he said there's a lack of housing for the people experiencing homelessness. 

"So when we go out there, we’re trying to satisfy the community and at the same time trying to solve the issue with the homeless," said Rodriguez. 

Ann Howard, the executive director at ECHO, said she thinks more affordable housing is a step in the right direction. 

"But we’re hard-pressed to say, ‘Instead of camping there, come live here,' because we don’t have enough to offer where they can live," said Howard. "It’s sort of like sending somebody to a library with no books on the shelf. So, 2019 needs to be about filling up the shelf with housing opportunities.”

She said her hope is that affordable housing will lead to a "safer and better situation for everyone."

Happening this weekend is the annual Point in Time, or PIT Count, where dozens of volunteers are expected to set out early Saturday, January 26 to canvas the city/county and survey the number of people experiencing homelessness. 

The PIT Count is a requirement by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, but also an opportunity for community members to help gather important information about those who are homeless in Austin. Austin ECHO organizes the local count and is responsible for analyzing the data and sharing the results.

To learn more about volunteer opportunities for this year's count through Austin ECHO, click here.

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