Austin 311 reports spike in homelessness calls

Lauren Girgis

The number of 311 calls concerning homeless people between June and August more than quadrupled since last year, Austin 311 reported.

At last week’s homelessness forum, Mayor Steve Adler cited that between June 20 and Aug. 29 of 2019, Austin 311 reported receiving a total of 919 calls concerning homelessness and homeless people compared to 164 during the same time period last year. Of this year’s calls, more than two-thirds were service calls, and the rest were feedback calls. Patty Mendoza, Austin 311 public information officer, said 311 takes nonemergency city service calls, and the call increase may be due to 311 formalizing their process for tracking calls.

“We didn’t track any homelessness calls before March of 2019,” Mendoza said. “We pulled a report on anything that had to do with homelessness, and we got 164 in 2018 for (that) time frame.”

Calls made to 311 about homelessness or homeless people can include complaints about trash left by homeless people or questions about the homeless ordinance. Mendoza said 311 transfers those types of calls to the homelessness office. 

“If somebody is fighting, then it’s a police matter, and we transfer it to (the Austin Police Department),” Mendoza said. “If for some reason you dial 311 and we ask you a preliminary list of questions, that’s (because) we have 311 ambassadors who are trained to identify 911 calls, and they will send you directly to 911 (if need be).”

SafeHorns president Joell McNew said it’s important for students to know when and why to make 311 calls. McNew said students can notify 311 if someone has defecated on a sidewalk, if there are needles on the ground or if a light is out in the street. 

“It’s going to be really important for the city of Austin to create shelters but also determine what the plan of action will be for those who will not be going into shelters,” McNew said. “How those people (can) receive resources and therefore change their quality of life will also impact the quality of life for everyone in Austin. People are concerned. Students have been reporting to us aggressive behavior.”

McNew said students need to recognize when it’s appropriate to call 911. 

“You should never hesitate to call 911 or assume that someone else has, and that should (apply to) 311 as well,” McNew said.

Speech pathology junior Kacey Vandervort said she thinks students are not adequately aware of how and when to notify 311 of an issue. McNew and Mendoza said citizens can report a nonemergency to 311 or 512-974-2000, submit a request via the free 311 app or via the website.

“I’m from Austin, so I’ve called 311 in the past for dead animals or street lights out in West Campus,” Vandervort said. “The app isn’t really publicized at all, (but) it’s a really great resource.”

Vandervort said past experiences made her feel the University should educate incoming students on what to do during different situations.

“My freshman year, I had a homeless man come out of an alleyway and ask me for my backpack and then start chasing me down the street towards my dorm, so I ended up calling 911,” Vandervort said. “We’re in the middle of a city — things are gonna happen. Kids just need to be educated more (on) how (to) respond.”