By LYNETTE HAALAND, Four Points News
Jason Kloc became curious about a man pushing a shopping cart in late September in Steiner Ranch down Quinlan Park Road. It led to an engaged discussion on Facebook about potential homeless people in Four Points.
“He seemed out of place. I haven’t seen him around,” said Kloc, a Steiner resident.
Kloc posted on the Steiner Parents of Teens Facebook page on September 22 to gather more information from the community: “Anybody else aware of homeless or vagrants setting up shop in Steiner?”
“I was curious and in the dark about it,” he said, as he was looking for some constructive dialogue. “I wanted to know what was going on and if this is an issue or a one-off.”
There were 243 comments, and lots of discussion and concern shared by many.
Others had spotted the same man pushing a shopping cart. The HOA was called but people were told to call 3-1-1, the non-emergency police number.
At one point, two Travis County Sheriff’s Office cars had stopped to talk with him around Longhorn Village retirement community, not far from River Ridge Elementary.
Another man posted that he walked past him and exchanged a few words, pointing out “he’s not all there.” He scoped out the contents of his cart and tried to determine if he had any weapons under his large trench coat.
Through the Facebook comments, people also shared that at least one person — not sure if it was the same person with the shopping cart — seemed to be camping off of RM 620 N. across from the Marshall Ford Food Mart near Mansfield Drive.
Kloc went to that spot and saw a tarp strung up through the trees with grocery bags hanging from trees. To him it looked like it was someone or some people living there. The site is very close to where the Steiner fires began in 2011.
By presstime, it was not clear if this site is in the city of Austin and/or if it is Travis County or Lower Colorado River Authority land or owned by a private individual. If it is the city of Austin, the camping ban was lifted last year and is allowed within certain criteria. Outside of the city, such camping is not allowed in non dedicated areas.
Homeless encampments have stayed closer to Austin central than the outer parts of Travis County.
“It really hasn’t been an impact on the county at all,” said Kristen Dark, Travis County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson. “We haven’t seen an uptick in calls on encampments.”
“It comes down to the fact that by and large, people (camping) in unincorporated areas are intentionally lying low, off the grid,” Dark said.
Being homeless is not a crime, she added. The sheriff’s office is called on homeless people if crimes are committed such as trespassing, fighting in public, a suspicious person, public intoxication or a list of other penal code violations.
In addition to crime, other challenges of homeless encampments can be sanitation, hygiene and litter.
Kloc has been in Austin for 30+ years and to him the increase in litter and garbage in the city “is sad”. One of the contributing factors of more litter has been the increase in the homeless population over the past year.
“I have friends who live near (homeless) camps and it brings with it negative things,” Kloc said. “Homeless encampments can bring bad things.”
Another cause of concern could be campfires. What if a fire is lit and it gets out of control? The campsite off of RM 620 is not far from where the Steiner fires started in 2011.
“The bigger concern is once one person does it does this turn into larger encampment and can that potentially be a bigger problem,” Kloc said.
He also realizes that some people are down on their luck and being homeless is a temporary situation.
“My family has donated our time and money to helping the homeless so we are certainly sympathetic and understanding of this issue,” Kloc said. But he has also seen that not all who are homeless want help.
At this point he wants to know how the Steiner HOA would handle someone who camps on HOA land. He plans to get a clearer understanding of what rules, if any, are in place at the next HOA meeting.
“I believe the best outcome of bringing attention to this issue is an organization reaching out to this person or persons and providing them an alternative to camping in the woods off 620, and they accept the offer,” Kloc said.“Worst case scenario is we do nothing and the problem grows and we have homeless encampments all along 620 and around Steiner.”