Slaying Fuels Demands to Make UT, Drag Safer

In emails and posts on a private Facebook page, parents are responding to last week's killing at UT-Austin by demanding something be done about the homeless, especially along the Drag.

Students walk past a heavily graffitied building that once was Mellow Mushroom on Guadalupe Street next to the University of Texas campus on April 9, 2016.
Students walk past a heavily graffitied building that once was Mellow Mushroom on Guadalupe Street next to the University of Texas campus on April 9, 2016.  Shelby Knowles

During his daughter's freshman orientation, Mike Lee first set foot on the University of Texas at Austin campus last summer. All he could see were signs of trouble.

"We were shocked," said Lee, a Houston police captain, recalling his and his wife's reaction to the streets where UT-Austin's boundaries end and the city of Austin begins. "The conditions around the campus are unreal."

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He and other parents found shuttered storefronts along the Drag — the popular strip on Guadalupe Street along the campus' western boundary — covered with graffiti. Homeless individuals camped out along trash-strewn sidewalks, bus stops and buildings. And aggressive, even confrontational, panhandlers approached students. 

"We're New York-New Jersey people," said Kate Moore, whose daughter is a UT sophomore. "We're used to homeless people. But that Drag just scares the living shit out of me. I don't understand how that's allowed to be there."

Complaints about the homeless who gravitate to UT-Austin's western edge are nothing new. But the beating death of 18-year-old freshman dance student Haruka Weiser on campus last week has Longhorn parents renewing calls for UT and local officials to do something about the Drag's state and to step up security in and around a campus that sees some 70,000 people on an average day.

"It didn't take a criminal justice genius to sit there and take a look at what's going on at that campus," Lee said.  

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Worry among parents is compounded because a 17-year-old, Meechaiel Criner, a homeless foster care runaway from Killeen, was charged in the slaying after surveillance video appeared to capture him following Weiser shortly before she went missing. 

"When something like this happened it didn't shock me, honestly," Lee said. "I sat and told my wife, I said: 'You watch when they catch the suspect, it's going to be one of these people that these parents have been complaining about.' They have been complaining and been complaining for something to be done." 

Much of the complaining by parents has been done through emails to the university and on a little-known, private Facebook page run by the university for parents. Although The Texas Tribune has not been able to access the site, parents have forwarded screenshots of postings urging a phone and email campaign by parents to area lawmakers and university officials, asking for a better security plan and for something to be done about the Drag.

"Help me share our collective voice and encourage your students to do the same," one parent posted over the weekend. Their suggestions run a gamut from what seems attainable — more bicycle officers, better lighting — to what are sure to be a tougher sells like banning anyone from sleeping or loitering within 2,500 feet of campus and student housing.   

"The situation on the Drag occasionally smacks of an open air asylum," another parent said on the UT Parents Association page, according to screenshots of the page.

On Monday, the Tribune sent a request to a university spokesman to discuss the conversation taking place among parents on that university-monitored Facebook page. The university did not immediately respond. 

An online petition to Remove The Homeless Off Of Guadalupe Street had garnered 624 signatures by late Monday, many from students and parents. 

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"There's a perception that comes out that the university is overrun by the homeless," University of Texas Police Department Chief David Carter told the Tribune. "That's not true."

Carter's department has 80-plus officers who patrol the 434-acre campus and assist Austin Police Department off-campus.  

Carter conceded, however, that there's been a rise in the number of homeless individuals crossing the Drag and other boundaries — like Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to the south and East Dean Keeton Street along the north — and being found in campus buildings or sleeping in classrooms and stairwells.

"It's shifted in the past couple of years," said Carter, an Austin Police Department veteran who was named UT's police chief in 2013. "There's more anecdotes of homeless people threatening students or disorderly behavior causing concern. That's when we created a full-time bicycle unit." 

A year ago, for example, one homeless man stabbed another during a fight inside the Student Union Building.

But homelessness, and problems caused by vacant storefronts, are issues that will need a more collaborative approach involving city and perhaps state leaders. The university, he said, has been meeting for months with city leaders to work on a better solution to the Drag's host of ills. 

"You can't rely on the police to solve the problems of the homeless," Carter said. 

Parents like Lee, Moore and others wonder aloud if it's time to move the churches along the Drag that offer meals and help to the homeless. They argue that while the work with the homeless is well meaning, the churches inadvertently help lure a criminal element to campus. 

Moore said she's not anti-homeless but said a definite cleanup of the Drag is needed because in its current state it does nothing but attract a loitering criminal element. 

"Make it safe," she insisted.

In recent months, there have been a number of arrests of individuals, mostly homeless, who were found to be using the illegal synthetic marijuana known as K2. Carter confirmed that the drug is something his officers see off campus, used mostly by the homeless. 

"K2 is not something you see in the student population," Carter said. "But we definitely do see it in the rise of the West Campus homeless population."

Carter would not comment on the criticism from parents that the churches need to move or restrict their outreach.

"I think it's a legitimate question about where these services are provided and if it's the right place," he said. 

John Elford, senior pastor at University United Methodist Church, which is located on the Drag and offers free meals to homeless youth on Thursdays and another meal to anyone in need on Saturdays, as well as free clothing, does not see their presence as a threat.

"If we were rehabbing people who are just out of prison, then sure, I would agree that it's a bad idea to do that next to a university campus," Elford said. "However, homelessness, as (Austin Police) Chief Art Acevedo pointed out, is not a crime, and I'm not sure there's any evidence that points to the homeless being a greater criminal risk than any other group." 

After Weiser's body was found last week, UT President Greg Fenves announced that the Texas Department of Public Safety would be conducting a review of campus safety

On Monday, Fenves reiterated his stance on whether campus access should be restricted. It's not an option, he said.

"We are a public university. We are going to maintain an open campus," Fenves said, adding that he does not see a scenario in which the campus would surround itself with walls or locked gates. That, he said, "is actually inimical to a public institution."

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.