Homeless population addressed as West Campus church, UT parent organization work together

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This file photo from June 20, 2013 shows the University United Methodist Church on the corner of Guadalupe and 24th Streets. The church sponsors a program for street-dependent youths that meets with SafeHorns to discuss how each group can contribute to the safety of the neighborhood.

Photo Credit: Guillermo Hernandez | Daily Texan Staff

The dialogue surrounding safety within the UT community has reached new levels of intensity regarding different approaches to student safety and the nearby homeless population.

Instances of drug dealing and violence in West Campus rose in 2015, according to the University of Texas Police Department and non-profit Micah 6.

Concerns regarding the transient population on Guadalupe Street and its relationship to student safety also increased after the murder of theatre and dance freshman Haruka Weiser last spring.

SafeHorns, an organization created by UT parents in the wake of Weiser’s murder, and Street Youth, a program sponsored by the University United Methodist Church on Guadalupe Street that provides care for street-dependent young people, began meeting seven months ago to discuss how each group can contribute to the safety of the neighborhood. 

The relationship between the groups was initially adversarial, but both organizations are committed to recognizing the concerns raised by their own communities, Street Youth founder Terry Cole said. 

“This has always been where young homeless people have come because it’s students,” Cole said. “We actually had some infiltration of violent gangs for the first time ever on the drag, so 2015 was a bad year. That really galvanized the fear and animosity.”

Cole said the tension between UT students and the West Campus homeless population is nothing new.

After increased police surveillance in West Campus beginning in 2014, the homeless population reduced significantly, Cole said. 

Crime, especially in relation to K2, has also been dealt a blow after both UTPD and the Austin Police Department began bike patrols and arresting individuals who disseminated the drugs, according to UTPD.

Joelle Sullivan-McNew, SafeHorns media liaison, said safety should be the community’s primary concern.

“Without public safety being strong and engaging and functioning, we are nothing,”  Sullivan-McNew said. “[Non-profits] are saying we’re negatively impacting their service because of APD and they want APD to go away. All the businesses and all the students … they are all so grateful that it is better.”

The divide between students and homeless youth stems from misconceptions, which Sullivan-McNew said are destructive to future
partnership building.

“They’re grouping all the students to be these affluent, wealthy kids who if they can’t handle it, should just go back to where they came from, and it was very upsetting,” Sullivan-McNew said. 

Living without a home isn’t seen as a bad thing in the eyes of some people served by Street Youth. One individual who goes by the street name “Celeste” said his views towards homelessness have evolved.

“I had fear of it for a long time … I went back to it over and over and it happened so many times,” Celeste said. “I was like you know what? Screw it. I learned how to enjoy it and how to survive it.” 

As for the conversation between SafeHorns and Street Youth, a lot of ground is yet to be covered. After some disagreement, both Cole and Sullivan-McNew said they’re confident in the positive direction their respective organizations are headed in, knowing that each side will have to compromise.

“I have to be committed to long-term, sustainable, positive difference in West Campus,” Sullivan-McNew said. “If that means that we have to work harder at having relationships with people we don’t necessarily agree on everything [with], then it’s just what we have to do.”

This story has been updated since its initial publication to include Micah 6.