AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin Police Department is ramping up efforts to clean up an area they call a hotspot for violent crime. APD has a special unit called the RISE Team, which works only in the Riverside area.
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This week, the RISE Team is starting a focused outreach effort at E. Riverside Drive and Willow Creek Drive. APD said a tunnel there draws violent crime, narcotic transactions and prostitution because people living in the tunnel tend to be targeted by criminals.
APD explained that several homeless people live in the tunnel. If they’re struggling with substance abuse issues, they can be targeted by drug dealers.
“Right now, we’re doing the outreach with community paramedics, trying to get them the resources they need,” explained Austin Police Sgt. Hector Campos.
Some people who live in the tunnel told KXAN moving out isn’t going to be easy because they don’t know what to do with their belongings.
They have makeshift beds, put together from cardboard boxes, milk crates or plastic crates.
Still, APD said people should not be living in the tunnel because of safety issues.
“There’s the health concern. All the debris. Feces and urine. It’s very unsanitary,” said Campos.
Officer Karl Krycia added, “They’ll have candles, campfires back here, and as you can see, all their structures are made out of pellets and cardboard, so you can imagine, if a fire were to happen in here, people would be trapped.”
Additionally, APD said the tunnel can flood easily when it rains.
So this week, the RISE team and Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services’ community health paramedics are going out to the tunnel every day to get those living in there out and connected to services.
ATCEMS Commander Blake Hardy said, “Our story more often that not is they will engage. Very often, it’s in preventive medicine and getting them primary care, prescriptions… and that blossoms into opening up about their struggles with substance use or other dependencies then we can also connect them to mental health needs.”
He said the focus is also on building relationships.
Hardy explained, “The city has a lot of resources. Open shelter beds is not something that we have,” so because of that, they want to know where people are moving to and make sure the people have a way to get in touch with the community health paramedics.
“As an individual, they’re going to move to where they feel safe,” Hardy said. “We simply try to make sure that we know where they’re going to go if they know, and if not, they know how to contact us.”
After this week, the hope is people will voluntarily leave the tunnel.
APD said at the end of January, the Watershed Protection Department will remove everything from the tunnel. By that point, they may have to arrest people if they’re still trespassing.
“Ultimately, the last thing we want is take enforcement on someone that, the reality is they need help,” Campos said.