The Waller Creek Tunnel project is expected to be finished next year. The eventual goal and vision for the area is a San Antonio River Walk type development. But before that can happen, Austin police have been charged with changing behavior for those who frequent Waller Creek.
The creek named after the first mayor of Austin, Edwin Waller, is under renovation. But before Waller Creek can transform into a future city attraction people have to stop camping out and leaving debris in it first. That's where Austin police come in. Because major development is coming, APD was told to clean up the area and change behavior.
So in between calls daytime downtown officers search for homeless camps in and around Waller Creek. They are not hard to find.
FOX 7 went along. The first thing we notice, is the stench of human waste. Further south, we find a more sophisticated camp, complete with a bamboo roof. Sleeping bags, hygiene products, a mattress, and underwear litter the area, along with dozens of beer cans and bottles.
"If you live in the city and you come down here to the parks and Waller Creek, is this what you want to see?" asked APD Sgt. Mike Cowden.
It's not what the city wants out of town visitors to see either. Waller Creek runs right by the Austin Convention Center. Just feet away, a chair marks another cleaned up homeless camp site.
Police also took us to a cleaned up part of the tunnel.
"Just up the way is Serrano's so it's very close to well-travelled areas," said Cowden.
Compare this to a few weeks ago. Police gave us several pictures showing tents and trash everywhere.
"It took almost two hours to clean it up. That's how much debris was down here. Clothes, bottles, narcotics, paraphernalia. Two weeks ago we had two folks that we took out of here and took them to jail," said Cowden.
Police also offer transients help.
"They get a counselor offered to them to help, get them off the streets. We tell them all that if they choose to, they ask Judge Coffee tomorrow to see a case worker, make the choice to make their lives better, and they can get out of these living arrangements," said APD Cpl. Chris Carlisle.
But some don't want to give up alcohol or drugs and prefer the freedom of coming and going, even if they're in a wheelchair.
"They don't take their chair with them because it'll be too hard to carry so they leave the chair up top here with what little belongings they have and they don't care if they lose or not and then they go down there to their camp site," said Carlisle.
Besides being unsightly, much of the debris can end up in Lady Bird Lake. Another concern for police is drownings.
"The south pump of the Waller station is going to be right here, you can see construction zone. The Waller Creek tunnel will be running underneath here. When the tunnel becomes operational, and there's water flowing all the time in Waller Creek, from 15th Street down to the river, this whole area here will have water here flowing constantly, so if they're living down there, there's a possibility they can drown," said Carlisle.
So many people camp out here that the city is keeping track of them.
"The city put a counter in that they use at intersections," said Carlisle.
The completion date for the Waller Creek Tunnel project is 2014. Changing behavior now before the 5600 feet long tunnel is done.