Mayor pro tem discusses solutions to homelessness around UT

Albert Zhao

Concerns with Austin’s homeless population and student safety quickly reached Austin Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo after the on-campus death of dance freshman Haruka Weiser last year.

“In the wake of that, I have definitely heard concerns from parents of UT students and from students … (with) some of the people who are out in the streets in this area,” Tovo said.

On Thursday, Tovo discussed a city program that provides aid for Austin’s homeless and would reduce the number of people living on the streets in a talk hosted by campus organization Ignite.

The program, Homeless Outreach Street Team, sends two police officers, two behavioral health specialists, one paramedic and one social worker to build relationships with the homeless and provide aid. The goal is to reduce incidents of crisis, such as arrests and trips to the emergency room, Tovo said.

Tovo, because her district has the highest concentration of homeless people, said this issue was her “number one priority” as a council member. Tovo’s district encompasses large parts of downtown Austin and the UT campus area.

“We know that we can’t meet all of (the homeless population’s) needs for housing right now,” Tovo said. “The job of HOST is to really see what kinds of resources they can bring to the lives of the men and women they’re meeting.”

Tovo said HOST once helped save a homeless man’s life by diagnosing a heart condition that would have left him dead in a few days. The program also helps connect homeless people with housing units the city has approved for their use.

“It’s just a great initiative,” Tovo said. “It’s intended to meet the needs of people who are experiencing homelessness, get them in the queue for housing and try to prevent medical crises or other kinds.”

Cindy Ramirez, international relations and global studies sophomore, said she appreciates the humanity behind HOST.

“She’s trying to sort of address it in a rehab type of manner,” Ramirez said. “I think that’s the best way to go, because you don’t want to criminalize these people that are unfortunate and don’t have a home."

Government junior Jacob Pena said students should become more interactive with the issue of homelessness and find ways to volunteer and help the Council.

“You can’t just alienate these people like they don’t exist,” Pena said. “They’re people who fell on way harder experiences than us students on campus.”