You’re still in your first or second year at UT. You feel you know the campus well enough that you can get home alone after dark. As you walk, a figure rises from the sidewalk and asks you if you have any spare change. You freeze. What do you do?
Austin’s transient population numbers over 2,000. Students can expect to see transients near the UT campus, often asking for aid. However, many UT students are unsure of how to react in these situations, especially those who are not from areas with large transient populations. Despite the prominence of violent incidents between students and transients, there are no resources available to students pertaining to this prevalent issue.
UTPD needs to offer students instruction on how to safely and respectfully interact with transients either by sharing the information at orientation or creating an accessible, informative resource.
“We don’t really have someone to look out for us, to tell us what to do in certain potentially sensitive situations like a transient asking you for money,” social work sophomore Anahi Esparza said.
“When a homeless person asks me for money, I really don’t know what to say,” Esparza said. “I want to help them, but I’m afraid of what they’ll say or do if I do offer them money or if I don’t offer them enough money or if I don’t have any cash on me.”
This year, students have received two official crime alerts from UTPD involving transients on campus and four alerts via social media concerning crimes potentially involving transients around campus. In 2016, the transient-related murder of freshman Haruka Weiser shook UT’s campus.
These instances give students enough reason to worry about violent interactions with transients. For students who have little experience with large transient populations, that fear is often greater.
“My hometown is super small, so I’d never really interacted with transients before I came here,” psychology freshman Madison Wood said.“I didn’t know what to do when they approached me, so I just tried to avoid them.”
Freshman orientation offers students information about UTPD as well as general safety tips. UTPD Lt. Darrell Birdett said new students are told to call UTPD during an emergency and avoid walking alone after dark. This isn’t enough.
The orientation program does not present any advice about transient populations nor does the UTPD website include any information on the topic.
“If a homeless individual comes up to you, just interact with them as you would any other person,” Birdett said. “If there’s a problem, call 911.”
Behaving respectfully or staying inside by nightfall won’t necessarily guarantee safety and is unrealistic for many college students.
Birdett said most transients are not violent. However, past incidents prove that there is a clear risk of harm to students. Students need to be aware of how to mitigate that risk while still treating transients with respect.
UTPD needs to teach students how to respond when asked for money or stopped in the street by a transient. Students need to know when to say yes, how to say no and what they should or should not give transients.
If an interaction seems to be approaching a violent turn, students need to know how to de-escalate the situation on their own and when to call for help if they cannot. UTPD needs to teach students this vital information to students at orientation or through their website.
Everyone on and around UT’s campus deserves to feel safe and respected whether they are a student at the University or a member of Austin’s transient population.
Zaksek is a Plan II and women’s and gender studies major from Allen.