Protecting homeless women: what one Austin campsite is doing to prevent sexual assaults

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — One area homeless campsite is working to help homeless women feel safe.

When Austin City Council received updates from various nonprofits and stakeholders Tuesday about programs aimed at reducing homelessness, Integral Care told city leaders a homeless camp set up by Governor Greg Abbott is helping to prevent women who are homeless from being victimized.

According to the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM), as of Monday, they counted 142 people sleeping at the camp.

Fifty seven of them were women.

The camp opened last November in southeast Austin near U.S. 183 and Montopolis Drive. It’s a state-owned plot of land that Governor Greg Abbott said could be used by people experiencing homelessness to camp.

TDEM said so far, it has incurred minimal cost staffing the camp. They’re there to make sure meals donated by the Salvation Army are being distributed and manage donations.

People who are staying at the camp said the donations needed are tarps, tents and right now, winter clothing.

The Department of Public Safety (DPS) has a trooper at the camp 24/7.

Helping people feel safe at the camp

David Gomez who spoke at City Council’s work session said for single women who are homeless, the risk of being sexually assaulted is much higher.

He explained, “The reality is for the women that are out there, if they don’t have a dog and they’re not tied to a particular individual male or female, chances are they’re going to be the victims of sexual assault. If not just once, maybe a number of times every night.”

But over at the state campsite, he said, “What I’ve been hearing from the ladies that are at the encampment is that because the DPS presence is there, there has not been a single rape out there.”

A woman who’s been staying at the camp since December said she feels safe there.

“I actually do like it out here. I like being out here,” she said. “It’s not the best, but it’s better than what I’ve been going by.

She said if you’re homeless and you’re not around people to help protect you, it’s “kind of dangerous trying to be alone.”

Robert Rhodes, who’s been staying at the camp since November, said he also feels safer at the camp than under highways near downtown.

“People go in there and start throwing stuff at you. I’ve heard people get shot at. People steal our tents, raid our tents,” he said. “At least here, it’s safer so that I can keep my stuff in my tent and not have to worry about nobody messin’ with it.”

The residents of the camp have formed a leadership group.

Rhodes explained, “What we do is we get information from the town, and we go in and talk about what is needed and then we go in and find a way to get what we need. We’re trying to show the city council, the mayor and our governor that we’re like everybody else. We are humans, and we can make decisions to help ourselves.”

But the camp is not a long-term solution

The Governor’s Office has always said the camp is a temporary solution.

The spokesperson told KXAN they’re working on some long-term solutions. It could include getting the state Legislature involved when they convene next year.

He said the camp is certainly working right now, giving people a place to be.

TDEM said nonprofit organizations and service providers have been coming by to help people with things like doctor’s appointments.

The Governor’s Office said the camp will stay open until there’s a long-term solution to homelessness.

Mayor Steve Adler agreed, the camp is a safer place than the woods.

“Someone is safer under an overpass than they are by our creeks and streams. Certainly someone is safer in the governor’s camp where there’s a DPS officer all day long,” he said.

He went on to add, “What we know is we can’t put police or DPS officers in these camps all day long. The safest thing we can do for these folks is get them in homes.”

Adler said a permanent solution is to provide housing.

“I don’t think that any campsite should be permanent,” he said. “We’re not talking about nameless people, we’re talking about very real people.”

Adler said if the governor takes legislative action to address homelessness, he welcomes any funding.

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