IssuesLocal NewsWindsor Park Trash Flood Exposes Austin’s Struggle to Cope With Growing Homeless Population

Over a year after its homeless ordinance change, the City of Austin and its residents are still reeling from the repercussions as the city digs its heels in on the policy.
August 17, 2020
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“There were thousands of pounds of trash, human waste, and needles washing through our backyards and the creek bed.”

Kevin Ludlow struck a nerve after posting his time-lapse video of the Windsor Park creek, which runs from Cameron Rd., into the neighborhood behind Ludlow’s house, and continues east. It even runs past a new community pool and water park.

(L) Film from August 2 of the Windsor Park creek bed by Kevin Ludlow, used with permission. (R) The Windsor Park creek bed on August 13. (The Texan/Brad Johnson)

The portion of creek bed which runs the length of the Heritage at Hillcrest apartment complex, behind his back yard, and down a couple of blocks further is prime real estate for the city’s growing homeless population because of its shade and relative seclusion.

Since the beginning of 2020, Ludlow noted the population of homeless individuals living in the creek bed grew to a few hundred people until its apex a couple of weeks ago. A storm came on July 31, causing the creek to flood and wash the piles of debris further down the area.

The issues that have arisen downtown and in the city’s business-heavy districts have been well-documented, but it has extended beyond these areas.

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Ludlow has lived in Austin since the 1990s and said homelessness has long been a problem, but that its progression has been supercharged of late.

About the recent progression, Ludlow stated frustratingly, “People’s children and pets are running around in these backyards while awash with glass and needles.”

In his video, Ludlow was able to record footage of campers smoking crack and shooting up heroin. Multiple times, campers became confrontational over his documentation.

He added that because regular syringes can be hard to come by, campers turn to insulin needles — which are much smaller both in length and tip — of which he’s found numerous on the ground.

He underscored, “I’m a pretty progressive-left guy, but [allowing homeless camping] has helped nobody, especially the homeless.”

As Ludlow showed The Texan the area, a figure popped his head over the fence, referred to as John for this story. John has lived in the Windsor Park creek bed for a year with his girlfriend — referred to as Sarah for this story — who has spoken with Ludlow before for another video.

He has been trying to get the pair into housing but thus far, due to both the lack of cooperation by the couple and slow response from the city, has been unable.

(L) Film from before August 2 of Windsor Park campers by Kevin Ludlow, used with permission. (R) The same spot on August 13. (The Texan/Brad Johnson)

John then said he and Sarah moved up to Windsor Park after becoming disenchanted with the ARCH, the city’s largest permanent homeless shelter located on 7th Street in downtown.

When asked what the parks’ been like, John said he prefers it to downtown, but crime within the camp continues abound, especially when hundreds of people lived on the creek bed.

Not only are they subject to rampant theft, John added that “far worse things than that” had happened, insinuating that Sarah had been sexually assaulted. Since he is a felon, John said he feels limited in what he can do to stop it. Sarah went into more detail in Ludlow’s video.

Back in October, Austin Police Department Chief Brian Manley reported statistics showing a 15 percent increase in violent crimes wherein both the victim and the suspect were homeless from July through September of 2019 compared with the same time frame the previous year.

Austin’s homeless problem has been growing for decades, but a watershed moment occurred last year.

In June of 2019, the Austin City Council approved the rescission of its public camping and lying ban. It went into effect in July and has led to a massive uptick in the unsheltered homeless population ever since, as more transients made camp on public property ranging anywhere from parks, sidewalks, underpasses, and more.

(L) Film from July 22 of the Windsor Park creek bed by Kevin Ludlow, used with permission. (R) The Windsor Park creek bed on August 13. (The Texan/Brad Johnson)

The city’s stated intention was that the policy change would bring the homeless population into sheltered facilities wherein they could receive whatever aid they needed.

In this year’s homeless population survey, the city recorded a 45 percent increase in its unsheltered population and an 11 percent decrease in those sheltered. There was an unmistakable incentive to leave shelters or the woods and live on the streets.

The city eventually reinstated some of the restrictions in place before July 2019 but stopped well short of fully reinstating the ban. The issue has grown substantially and fractured the community and its elected council considerably.

After the flood had strewn the debris across the watershed, an organization called The Other Ones Foundation (TOOF) came to the community’s aid. TOOF employs homeless individuals to clean up campsites that have been overrun with trash, and are funded by various sources including the city.

Ludlow said it took TOOF three days of work by 18 workers to fully clear the area. Added up at $15 per hour, the rate TOOF pays its employees, the cleanup at Windsor Park cost the city about $6,500.

Patience McMooain poses in the parking lot of the HEB across from his encampment. (The Texan/Brad Johnson)

“It should have never gotten to that point,” Ludlow said.

One of the TOOF employees who partook in the cleanup was Patience McMooain, a homeless man who resides in the median strip on the corner of East Riverside Dr. and South Pleasant Valley Rd.

He makes his money panhandling and singing while doing so, in addition to working for TOOF about two days a week. He brings home about $75 per day from TOOF.

McMooain has lived at the Riverside-Pleasant Valley encampment for several months. Originally, he was downtown but moved to the park once everything shut down and there was far less traffic to panhandle from.

At first, “there were a lot of people stealing and trash everywhere, but we have got it mostly figured out now,” he said. The campsite had plenty of garbage scattered across the grounds, but McMooain said it’s improved of late.

“Out here, we’re just trying to make it every day,” he says, gesturing to the camp and a tent run by other homeless individuals that sell various items.

McMooain is from New Orleans, hence the Saints hat tilted slightly on his head, but left the Big Easy after Hurricane Katrina. After a brief stint in Longview, TX, he came to Austin.

He added that his birthday is next month, and he is organizing a game of laser tag and capture the flag between his camp and another in the city to fundraise money for his encampment.

The group has no intention of going anywhere, McMooain said, stipulating that they’re trying to raise money to purchase shade and other amenities for their makeshift settlement.

Trash scattered on the grounds of the Riverside median homeless encampment. (The Texan/Brad Johnson)

Back at the Heritage at Hillcrest apartments, another resident who preferred not to give his name, voiced serious condemnation of the city’s disregard for what had befallen Windsor Park.

He pointed out portions of the dividing fence between Windsor Park and the complex that were not discolored. A fire broke out in June among the campsite and engulfed sections of the fencing. The fire department was able to quell the flames before it got out of hand, but the threat of worse damage was there.

“I’ve only been here for four months and there have been four or five fires already,” he exclaimed. “Everywhere you see new wood, either there’s been a fire there or someone has busted through it.”

He then added, pointing out Sarah walking on the other side of the fence, “They raid our dumpster and just throw s— everywhere, and she does it all the time.”

“I call the police all the time and they tell me nothing can be done,” he continued. Since the ordinance change, police can only remove an individual from an area if they’re trespassing on private property or committing some sort of violence.

“It’s a cesspool down here and now I know why it’s so cheap to live here.”

It is clear to him the problem is driven by two things: drug abuse and mental illness.

Bags of unidentified belongings sit in the Windsor Park creek area. (The Texan/Brad Johnson)

“With mental illness, that’s different — that’s a black mark against our society. But we are allowing them to [defecate] and shoot up wherever and the city council isn’t telling them to ‘take that s— somewhere else.’”

Austin ECHO, who commissions the city’s homeless study, did not track mental illness or drug abuse in the survey. But based on its estimation of the statewide homeless population’s mental illness/drug abuse proportion, about 920 of Austin’s 2,500 would suffer from either of these two, or both. 

He concluded, saying, “This is much more than a housing issue.”

The city’s approach has focused heavily on housing and its affordability. In the 2020 survey, the city points to “rising rent and a stagnant minimum wage” as a key contributor. Austin is an expensive city and its cost of living is rising, but the city compares a median rent — which it errantly calls “minimum” in the survey findings — to a minimum wage.

That said, while Austin’s cost of living index is slightly below the U.S. average and is more expensive than many places in the country, it’s nowhere near the level of Boston, New York, and San Francisco. In fact, it’s basically on-par with Nashville and Phoenix — with the former having a far lower population and the latter a much higher.

To this end, the city has purchased a motel to renovate into a shelter. The originally approved cost was $8 million. It is still being remodeled.

Additionally, a conglomeration of Austin business groups announced their plans to build a temporary shelter back in November 2019. That is also still in the works, but will be designed to provide a transitional shelter between living on the streets and finding permanent housing.

Ludlow has lived in his house for eight years now, but has been in Austin for nearly 25 years. He’s seen the location of the homeless population move from the drag, Guadalupe St. up the western side of the University of Texas campus, now to 6th Street and other parts of downtown and outward from there.

“As the city has expanded, there’s been a big displacement of people on top of the huge influx of residents,” he added.

Three homeless individuals at their camp on the corner of Riverside and Pleasant Valley. (The Texan/Brad Johnson)

The Windsor Park creek bed is not only prime real estate considering the seclusion it offers, but its access to the highly trafficked Cameron Rd. which diverges from I-35. Just up the creek bed are gas stations, fast food restaurants, and various stores — culminating in a lucrative site for panhandling.

But the Windsor Park area itself is full of many lower-income residents and isn’t the more affluent population which resides in the Barton Springs part of town — popularly known as the “04” shortened from its zip code, 78704.

Ludlow pointed to the city’s establishment of single-member districts as a contributor to this problem in that, because the city has been divided into 10 districts, there is more of an opposition to programs such as needle exchanges — wherein individuals can dispose of their used needles for clean ones.

For the longest time, council positions were not siphoned off into specific geographical districts, but candidates ran for specific seats, rather than at-large positions. During that time, most of the council came from the “04.” But in 2012, Austin voters opted to change that to what is in place now with single-member, geographically bound districts.

Ludlow said he thinks the change caused more voices opposed to the strong left-progressive makeup to reach positions of power on the council — a considerable point in that Republican Don Zimmerman held a seat from 2014 to 2016 and conservative independent Ellen Troxclair held a seat until 2019.

However, since the 2018 election, the council is exclusively Democratic and increasingly left-progressive — evidenced by the city’s actions on the homeless camping ordinance rescission of last year, its problematic Personal Recognizance bond reform of 2017, and this year’s $150 million slash to the police department budget.

Each of those aforementioned reforms has been either spearheaded or supported by Windsor Park’s councilman, Greg Casar.

Ludlow, a former Libertarian candidate for House District 46 against the controversial then-incumbent Dawnna Dukes, said he sees “more practical solutions,” such as needle exchange programs, as a better option than what the council has done.

Part of the Riverside median homeless camp. (The Texan/Brad Johnson)

“Rather than actually tailor solutions to the problem, [the city council] has hurt people like me and my neighbors who’ve done nothing to deserve it.”

Other residents are neither convinced of the city’s plan for the problem that’s been festering for decades.

A man, referred to as Tim, who has lived in Windsor Park for the better part of a half-century spoke to The Texan under the condition his real name was not used.

Tim’s property was flooded with the torrent of garbage and debris. Homeless individuals have also broken his spigots’ backflow valve off in order to take drinks from his water supply.

The petition effort to place a reinstatement of the original camping ban on the November ballot for Austin voters was rejected by the city clerk for failing to receive the necessary 20,000 valid voter signatures. But rather than verify each signature, the clerk’s office used a sampling method — which is legally permitted in state code — and found the petitioners came up just short.

Since then, city officials have remained even more bullheaded on the policy that has gained national attention since last July — despite the very real and abundant opposition among the populace.

And for the residents of Windsor Creek, they just hope another tsunami of garbage and needles doesn’t flood their backyards.

“Mark my words,” Tim said as his figure disappeared back into his house, “give it a few weeks and [Windsor Park] will be back to the way it was.”

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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad watching and quoting Monty Python productions.