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Moving encampments off public streets has made it more difficult to provide medical support to Austin’s unhoused 

Tuesday, December 14, 2021 by Samuel Stark

The camping ban set back years of progress local emergency services made in serving people experiencing homelessness, making it harder and more expensive to respond to an increase in emergency calls, according to a top emergency services official.

The ban forced more people out of easily accessible areas, increasing the likelihood of injuries and making it more difficult for Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services teams to provide preventive care and respond more quickly to emergencies, said Commander Blake Hardy, who oversees ATCEMS Community Health Paramedics.

“A call may come from somebody who just injured their ankle and can’t walk,” Hardy said. “If they’re in a tent on the side of the road, that’s just an ambulance. If they’re 200 yards in the woods, that’s an ambulance, an EMS rescue team, a commander, a fire engine.”

“(It) becomes a wilderness rescue involving multiple agencies and multiple apparatus,” he said.

In May, Austin voters approved Proposition B, which banned public encampments, prohibited resting in certain areas and set limitations on panhandling. The measure easily passed by a 15-point margin. 

ATCEMS has been working to help people who are unhoused become less reliant on emergency services by going into the community and proactively helping people manage medical and mental health care needs. By proactively working with people to fill prescriptions and manage their health, Hardy and his colleagues sought to reduce critical emergency calls and expensive emergency room visits. 

“(The ban) has probably put us back to where we were maybe four or five, six years ago,” Hardy said. 

ATCEMS felt they were making progress in relaying the importance of adhering to medication regimens to mitigate medical issues. The ban created more uncertainty for these communities, he said. EMS has now seen people focus more on basic survival needs, such as food, water and shelter, and become less concerned with keeping important prescriptions filled. 

Hardy said that the ban has also fractured the trust between these communities and the EMS workers who are there to provide support. 

“(This is) a population that’s not easy to communicate to en masse. … They mistake the agencies that are there to support them – EMS and CommUnityCare – and think we’re the gatekeepers to the supportive housing and the HEAL initiative,” Hardy said.

This population sometimes resents the workers there to support them because they confuse paramedics and other responders with the people who decide who gets housing and who does not, he said. 

Hardy acknowledged that the ban and other decisions about how to reduce homelessness raise complex questions without easy solutions.

“Moving them creates its own host of problems,” he said.  “And it fixes the visible part by making it invisible.”

“Until Austin is a place that is welcoming and supportive for all, regardless of housing status, we will continue to see more stories like this play out with lethal consequences for people without privilege and access to life-saving services,” a spokesman from the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) said in an emailed statement. 

This story was written by a journalism student at the University of Texas at Austin. The Austin Monitor is working in partnership with the UT School of Journalism to publish stories produced by students in the City and County Government Reporting course.

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