Officials are keeping a close watch after the discovery and cleanup in late April of an extensive homeless camp hidden in the drainage tunnels between Hollywood Park and San Antonio.
Some observers say the transient community under U.S. 281 North near Mecca Drive in Hollywood Park emphasizes the homelessness issue that has been been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hollywood Park officers, fire and public works personnel labored to clear out the transients and belongings they took into the tunnels, including shopping carts filled with supplies and trash, as well as human waste.
The tunnels are about a half-mile long, officers said.
Hollywood Park Mayor Chris Murphy said the camp found in the local drainage area shows how widespread the homeless situation has gotten around San Antonio, where officials are still working on a comprehensive plan to further help transients and address root causes.
“It is a sad, but compelling story as to the resourcefulness of the homeless that were staying there,” Murphy said. “Our fire, police and public works staff all devoted time, attention and energy towards this project. I’m proud of the work they’ve done, and in the progress in seeking continued help from (the Texas Department of Transportation) and the city of San Antonio.”
According to the Hollywood Park Police Department, officers saw a surge in calls early this spring involving homeless individuals seen in and around the town.
Residents and merchants complained about transients trespassing, carrying drugs and weapons, and littering.
“It is a major health and safety issue,” Police Chief Shad Prichard said on the department’s Facebook page April 29.
Police investigated, and by late March they discovered a homeless encampment in the drainage area under the expressway.
Authorities followed some transients into a longer passage of tunnels beneath city roads and the freeway, extending into the San Antonio city limits, where a bank and retail center are located at the beginning of Thousand Oaks Drive.
Hollywood Park employees cleaned out their city’s portion of the tunnels, although HPPD noted on Facebook the amount of garbage and materials discovered was far greater on the San Antonio side.
Hollywood Park reached out to San Antonio and TxDOT to check out the rest of the tunnels.
One San Antonio officer said she was very familiar with some of the individuals in the tunnels and knew some by name.
According to an online post from Hollywood Park police, a peach-colored rose bush that was a present to a local church was discovered during one of the sweeps of the tunnels and returned to the parish priest.
Hollywood Park police said they have tried to help many of the transients by matching them to needed resources, according to an online statement.
“The COVID pandemic has put a strain on some of these services.However, there are still organizations and people who are ready and able to assist,” an online statement said.
Reactions from local residents concerning the discovery under 281 were mixed.
Neighbor Rex Parlay said on the HPPD Facebook page there “is a whole underworld economy that is in front of us every day, yet we do not do anything about it.”
“When you see a person homeless on the street, what do you think happens to them when they are done begging?” he added.
“They have those in most large cities. This is not shocking,” resident Valerie Albert added on the same page.
As media outlets covered the news, some observers began asking whether the coronavirus pandemic was exacerbating the matter.
More than 40 million Americans have sought unemployment payments because of job losses due to the outbreak’s impact on the economy, resulting in local governments such as San Antonio providing millions of dollars in rental and mortgage assistance.
The federal government has a moratorium, effective until July 24, limiting evictions on properties that receive federal assistance.
The San Antonio City Council on May 14 failed to approve an ordinance that would give renters 60 days to address their outstanding rent.
Many property owners criticized the city’s proposal, saying it would have had a negative domino effect on them and that it would have likely opened the city up to litigation.