Housing Austin's Homeless Will Reduce Road Deaths, But That Will Require A Big Investment

May 17, 2018

Part 2 of a three-part series

Mike Villegas was doing work around the house with his 12-year-old son on Christmas Eve 2016 when he noticed a police car parked outside.

“I knew immediately that this was not going to be good,” he said.

Officers were there to tell him his eldest daughter, 25-year-old Sarah Jane Villegas, had been hit by several vehicles and died the night before. Sarah Jane, who struggled with substance abuse and was living on the street, had a strained relationship with her father.

According to Villegas, she had been living with her mom in Corpus Christi until a couple years before her death.

Mike Villegas' daughter Sarah Jane was hit and killed by multiple vehicles in 2016 while she was living on the street. While roughly a third of all deaths on Austin roads are pedestrians; a third of those deaths are people experiencing homelessness.
Credit Gabriel C. Pérez / KUT

“I was in and out of her life a lot,” said Villegas, who works in food services at Lake Travis ISD. “Then there would be times where, you know, she would need help or something and she would call as she got older and I would help her.”

Villegas said he paid for a hotel room for Sarah Jane in early December, and she appeared to be trying to get clean.

“She was trying to take care of herself, doing the best she could,” he said.

According to the police report, Sarah Jane tried to cross Loop 360 just after 10 p.m. on Dec. 23, 2016. It was raining. She was hit by several vehicles, including a fire truck. A passenger in one of the cars, who spoke to KUT on the condition of anonymity, said Sarah Jane came out of nowhere.

When asked if he blames anyone for his daughter's death, Villegas hesitates.

“I would probably say myself. I mean, I would say if I was a better dad in her time of need,” he said. “I also blame her for being where she was, doing what she was doing ... a lot of people really loved her.”

Credit Gabriel C. Pérez / KUT

In May 2016, Austin City Council members approved the Vision Zero Action Plan to reduce traffic deaths and serious injuries on city roads to zero by 2025. Since then, fatal crashes have dropped slightly, but pedestrians still make up roughly a third of the deaths.

Of those deaths, people experiencing homelessness account for 1 in 3.

“These people are often displaced and forced to live in places not meant for human habitation, such as underpasses and along roadways,” said Karen Dorrier, program manager for Austin Travis County Integral Care’s Homelessness Outreach Team.

And being on the streets most of the day can increase your chances of being hit.

On a Thursday morning in Austin, Theron Russell stood at the corner of I-35 frontage road and 15th Street, holding a sign that read “Anything Helps.” He says he’s been hit twice by cars while panhandling at the intersection.

Theron Russell says he's been hit twice at the corner of 15th Street and I-35.
Credit Julia Reihs / KUT

“One car bumped the other one and it fishtailed up onto the curb,” he said. “And when they’re doing 40 miles an hour, you can’t move. Then another car hit another car and I got hit with debris. And again, when they’re doing 40, you can’t get out of the way.”

“It’s real dangerous out here,” Russell said.

According to the most recent numbers from the Austin Police Department, roughly one-third of pedestrians who die on Austin roads are experiencing homelessness at the time. In 2015, 10 people living on the streets were hit and killed by drivers. In 2016, the number rose to 11, accounting for nearly 40 percent of pedestrian traffic deaths that year.

APD does not have numbers for 2017 or 2018. But of the five police reports of pedestrian deaths in 2017 that KUT obtained, two of those were people living on the streets.

When the city’s Vision Zero plan passed in 2016, the proposed solution for preventing homeless death in traffic was pretty simple: House people who don’t have homes. But service providers tell KUT a significant increase in resources is needed to reach this goal.

Ann Howard, the executive director of ECHO or Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, says the city and service providers have done a lot right.

ECHO recently released the results from its 2018 count of people experiencing homelessness on any given night in Austin. The numbers represent a roughly 5 percent uptick in the city's homeless population.

“But we haven't seen any surge in resources to be able to really change the endgame here to make the impact that the community, I think, is looking for,” Howard said.

But it’s not for lack of trying. There have been a couple of initiatives to try to get people off the streets and out of harm’s way.

Credit Julia Reihs / KUT

In 2016, APD took part in a pilot to ramp up outreach to people experiencing homelessness downtown and on West Campus. Recently, the Texas Department of Transportation started a campaign to promote pedestrian safety along I-35, where many homeless people are hit and killed, by handing out reflective bags and partnering with social service organizations to offer help.

Regardless, Howard’s comment about needing to increase efforts has made its way to the desks of local officials.

“We absolutely need more resources,” Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said.

Last month, City Council members approved an action plan to end homelessness, a guide for the future allocation of resources. But the funding mechanism – which would include private dollars and a promise of potential return on investment – is still being worked out.