AUSTIN (KXAN) — As the city of Austin continues grappling with how to address homelessness, city departments say one thing is clear: despite changes to city rules which impact people experiencing homelessness, the departments have not seen an increase in the amount of feces or syringe needles around the city.
Austin’s Public Health Department, Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department and Austin’s Public Works Department all said as much while presenting before the city council at work session two weeks ago.
Why mention this again?
Because people at public meetings, Austinites on social media, and even elected officials like Texas Governor Greg Abbott have cited the visible presence of needles and feces as evidence that Austin’s new policies related to homelessness are dangerous.
The governor shared a video from conservative activist Scott Presler on Sunday which showed a carton filled with needles collected in Austin. The city departments acknowledge that there are needles discarded around Austin, but they say their data shows there aren’t any more needles being used or discarded then there were before Austin repealed its camping ban.
In June, Austin City Council passed ordinances which largely decriminalized camping, sitting, and lying down in most public places. What followed were months of heated community meetings, reports from the police department, and input from community players. The council ultimately decided to place some of the old restrictions on camping, sitting, and lying down back into place with new rules that go into effect Monday.
What city departments are saying
On October 15, Stephanie Hayden who serves as the Director for Austin Public Health told an Austin City Council work session, “we don’t have any more incidents of feces or needles than we had before, we have the same hotspots that we had before.”
In that same meeting, Kimberley McNeeley who is the Director of the Austin Parks and Recreation Department echoed what Hayden said.
“The number of needles or the incidence of fecal matter has not increased to our knowledge, however, the Parks and Recreation Department along with our other partners have provided a process by which we can ensure as much safety as possible by distributing sharps containers,” McNeeley told the council.
“We’re not saying that we’re seeing an increase in needles, nor are we seeing that the needles are at issue,” she continued.
McNeeley added that it is department protocol to distribute sharps containers so that if someone is using drugs, they can safely put needles there so that the needles don’t come into contact with those in the encampment or involved in the encampment cleanup.
Richard Mendoza, the director of Austin’s Public Works Department also told the council that his department is not encountering a high amount of needles or feces but rather, “mostly debris and trash, items that are deposited on those underpasses.”
A document prepared by city staff to address questions from council members during that same week noted that city employees who perform cleanups at encampment sites have found fecal matter. Staff noted in that document, “the general sentiment of Austin Public Health is that there is not an increase in fecal matter.”
The document also said that city staff does not believe there is a public health crisis in the city and that Austin Public Health, “has not seen any greater threat or immediate increase of communicable diseases since June 2019.”
Staff also noted they are upping their efforts to clean the described “hotspots” based on information they get from places like 311 reports.
Austin Public Health says their statements in that document are still true two weeks later.
“We don’t anticipate any changes from a disease surveillance standpoint,” said Jen Samp, a spokesperson for the department.
“From a disease standpoint, what diseases derive from needles and public defecation, we are not seeing an increase in those diseases and the data is not showing these diseases transmitted from the homeless population to the general public,” Samp said.
Samp explained that Austin Public Health is not aware of the spread of any of the 25 most frequently reported communicable diseases in Travis County (including acute hepatitis B, HIV, and tuberculosis) spreading from the homeless population to the general population. She said that historically, only a “small fraction” of patients with active tuberculosis in Travis County report being homeless.
Samp also added that APH partners with the State of Texas to get the data they use and communicate daily with the Texas Department of State Health Services Programs.
Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department (PARD) is seeing similar things.
“The statements made at the Oct. 17, 2019 City Council meeting — that PARD staff members have not seen a measurable increase in feces, syringe needles, or garbage associated with homeless encampments — still hold true,” said Parks and Recreation spokesperson Rachel Matvy. “Also, we do not anticipate any changes due to city ordinances or potential action by state agencies.”
Texas Governor Greg Abbott has given the city of Austin an ultimatum, threatening to bring in state agencies if the city does not put the old camping ban back in place and demonstrate “demonstrating consequential improvement in the Austin homelessness crisis.”
In letters to city leaders, Abbott has suggested that things like needles and feces on the streets are the consequences of repealing the camping ban and that he has the power to direct state agencies to clean up the human waste.