AUSTIN (KXAN)– These days, it doesn’t take long for the routine chatter and sounds of blow dryers at Headspace Salon to suddenly turn into cries for help.
“I need police officers now!”
“Is there a closet that we can all go in or something?”
“Please send somebody now, this is not okay.”
Those are sounds from inside the salon in the past week, caught on video, as a man pulls out a pole from the ground– with concrete still attached– and approaches the salon.
“Oh my god,” someone can be heard saying. “Oh god, he’s trying to break the window.”
Co-owners Erin Mutschler and Laura North captured the encounter. They believe the man is experiencing homelessness and came from the homeless camp near Ben White Boulevard and Pack Saddle Pass in South Austin.
“People were crying, they ran to the break room. We kind of barricaded ourselves inside,” North said.
She said encounters like this happen about twice a week.
“We’ve dealt with those types of men repeatedly for the last couple of weeks where we really did think that somebody might die,” she said.
North and Mutschler said they’ve lost dozens of clients and employees due to safety concerns.
“There’s men jumping out of the bushes threatening to murder and rape them,” North said, describing her employees trying to leave work.
Austin Police said they issued a criminal trespass notice and are investigating.
But the women said officers took nearly an hour to arrive to the scene.
“We can’t guarantee their safety walking to and from their car… 10 feet out the door, you know, so that’s something that we take very seriously, it is really and truly concerning, and keeps us up at night,” Mutschler said.
They said police told the women they were understaffed and suggested the business owners hire private security– thousands of extra dollars a month the small business owners said they can’t afford.
Newly elected city council member for the district, Ryan Alter, said he is working with APD and the city to increase safety.
“Part of that challenge is that APD is understaffed… and that’s on the council, we need to do a better job to get them staffed up and be able to respond in the community better and quicker,” said Alter, who’s been in office for less than a month.
He said his office also reached out to APD to discuss where these calls fall on the response priority.
“Is wherever it is currently, is that appropriate for the level of challenge or danger that we are seeing?” Alter said. “It feels like it’s escalating a little bit and so we need to make sure that there is the necessary public safety response.”
KXAN asked Austin’s Homeless Strategy Division what is being done to clean up the South Austin camp.
A spokesperson explained that their Homeless Encampment Management Team is using a mobile app to “conduct encampment assessments and review data for consistency and accuracy.”
Those field surveys produce scores that are being used to rank camps’ priority and coordinate responses like targeting camps for the HEAL initiative, enforcing the public camping ban, cleaning up trash and dispatching social services, the spokesperson said.
The group did not say where the South Austin camp falls on its priority list, when it might be cleaned up, and people there taken to receive housing and other services.
Alter said he has heard similar answers in his meetings so far with the division.
“It’s frustrating when the answer is, ‘Well, I’m not sure,’ or ‘We’re working on it,'” he said. “That doesn’t mean anything to people like the salon… or the neighbors in that area.”
Alter said he has been in contact with Headspace Salon’s owners and is trying to push the city harder to get an action plan for his district.
“Maybe it’s 30 days, maybe it’s 60 days, but where we can show people that.. This is how we’re going to attack this and make it so that we are serving everybody,” Alter said.
He said the City of Austin seems to have a good long-term plan, but he and his constituents also need an immediate plan.
“Can we think about this a little differently and focus a little more on the right now and how we address the acute challenges?” he said.
Mutschler and North want leaders to fulfill their promises, so they can go back to the normal buzz of a hair salon.
“It feels like the city dropped a bunch of children and women in the middle of a war zone with no training and they are just hoping for no casualties,” North told KXAN.
“We need the city’s help. We can’t do this on our own,” she added.
“We’re begging for help, we’re desperate for help at this point,” Mutschler said.
The city of Austin says they’ve issued nearly five dozen camping citations since the summer.
They’ve just contracted with a national group called Endeavors to help get people off the streets.
Endeavors started in January and the group says their model of getting people into housing works, saying 90% of the people they housed in 2021 have overcome homelessness.
A spokesperson for the City of Austin Homeless Strategy Division said the division and its partners have been conducting extensive outreach in the area of Pack Saddle and Ben White Boulevard for several weeks. The spokesperson sent the following statement:
“This outreach presence will be maintained while social service professionals work to make resources available to vulnerable unhoused residents in the area. Social service and outreach workers do not have law enforcement authority and are not equipped to respond to, or address criminal complaints. Concerns of criminal activity should be reported to the Austin Police Department by calling 9-1-1. If someone is experiencing a mental health crisis, 9-1-1 now has a mental health option that can be used to request emergency assistance.”
Learn more about the City’s response to encampments here.