UT Police Department Chief David Carter asked Mayor Steve Adler and the Austin City Council to consider prohibiting camping along the perimeter of UT’s main campus and into West Campus in a press conference held Thursday.
In July, an ordinance went into effect removing restrictions on where homeless individuals were allowed to sit, sleep and camp in public areas in Austin and limiting the Austin Police Department’s discretionary authority to take action in incidents involving the homeless population.
“The police actually take a pretty significant role in managing things such as homelessness or other tragedies that occur,” Carter said during the press conference. “A large percentage of the time, it’s not about law enforcement. It’s about a public caretaking responsibility the police have.”
Carter first addressed this concern in an open letter to Adler and the City Council on June 6, before the ordinance was passed. He published a longer letter on the same subject Wednesday.
Adler proposed an action plan on homelessness last week in which he suggested restricting camping in areas of high foot traffic, including the Drag. In his letter Wednesday, Carter wrote that it is important to also add camping prohibitions around UT’s entire perimeter and in West Campus because of the dense student population residing there.
“Large numbers of students, staff members and faculty members travel on foot throughout the day and night, and permitting camping, sitting and lying down in those areas poses a similar public health and safety risk,” Carter wrote in the letter.
During the press conference, Carter also spoke about the experiences and statistics of students and staff interacting with homeless individuals around campus, particularly dance freshman Haruka Weiser, who was killed by a homeless individual in April 2016.
“We also fairly regularly receive complaints involving the interaction of homeless along the Drag or other areas around campus involving people that are either mentally ill or possibly addicted to drugs or alcohol,” Carter said.
UTPD received 171 calls involving transient or homeless crime in 2018 and 147 have been placed so far this year, but Carter said there are likely more incidents that were not reported to the police. Carter said he encourages students to call UTPD when they feel unsafe, whether a law is broken or not.
Biology sophomore Avery Koi said she has felt uncomfortable being approached by homeless individuals while in West Campus, but she does not know how to react.
“Sometimes (I feel) kind of apprehensive because I don’t like being approached, and I feel bad and don’t want to tell them no,” Koi said.
In his letter and conference, Carter also acknowledged that UTPD was committed to helping the city provide housing and treatment for the homeless community. UTPD is partnering with social work professor Michael Lauderdale to research how to best use UTPD’s resources to address homelessness around campus, protect students, staff and faculty, and urge the city to deploy their resources for the same purpose.
“I think the city … has a responsibility to address those kinds of concerns, and the action that the mayor and the city council took this summer are contrary to the best interest of the University in the student body,” Lauderdale said.