Dozens of city facilities could soon become safe havens for hate crime victims as Austin officials consider expanding a program that already involves more than 100 such locations across town.

The overview

The Safe Place program was created by Seattle police in the mid-2010s to raise awareness and reporting of anti-LGBTQ+ crimes. The program, later expanded to include all bias crimes, designates businesses that will assist victims who ask for help and report the incident to police.

Safe Place participants display decals in their windows to let community members know about the resource, and their employees receive training on how to respond to potential crimes.

The Austin Police Department rolled out Safe Place locally in 2019. The APD became the first law enforcement agency in Texas to offer the program and also expanded it to include the four most commonly spoken languages—English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Simplified Chinese—in the city.

More than 130 Austin businesses and offices have been Safe Place-designated, and 25 more applications are now pending, according to the police department.

"The APD Safe Place Initiative has gained momentum since its inception. However, educating Austin's business community about the program took us some time. Despite the setback caused by COVID-19, we have seen a significant increase in businesses, places of worship and city of Austin departments showing support for victims of bias-motivated crimes in recent years," a police department spokesperson said in an email.

Safe Places in Austin today include coffee shops, restaurants, faith centers, apartment complexes, medical centers and some city government offices, including those of council members Vanessa Fuentes, José Velásquez, Chito Vela and Mackenzie Kelly.

What's happening?

A resolution from Velásquez up for a council vote on May 18 calls for the implementation of the Safe Place program at all of Austin's operating libraries and recreation centers. If approved, the measure would add Safe Place decals at those facilities and regularly train city employees on the program procedures.

After he and his staff completed Safe Place training, Velásquez said he wants to expand the program's reach to ensure Austin remains a welcoming place for all by publicly acknowledging the secure, calm spaces available in the community.

“It’s just understanding that while I feel safe as a Latino male in Austin, Texas, that is not everybody’s understanding of Austin. And so wanting to make sure that people don’t feel like if they’re out in our community they don’t have safe places to be," he said.

Fuentes, Vela and council members Ryan Alter and Zo Qadri have cosponsored Velásquez's resolution.

A closer look

Another goal of the Safe Place initiative is to address the under-reporting of hate crimes, a trend Austin appears to experience with regard to the LGBTQ+ community.

Austin averaged around eight reported bias crimes against gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender victims annually between 2017 and 2022, peaking with 17 reported last year alone. Three of five hate crimes logged so far in 2023 were anti-gay or anti-LGBT more generally, according to city data.

However, the actual number of people victimized for their sexual orientation or gender identity in Austin is likely much higher than the dozens formally reported over recent years. In a 2021 quality of life study on Austin's LGBTQ+ community—found to be one of the largest and most vibrant in the country—more than half of those surveyed said they knew someone who was physically threatened or attacked because of their identity. More than half also said they had been verbally harassed or abused because of their own identity.

Despite the prevalence of incidents, nearly two-thirds of those polled said they did not seek help after those incidents, in part due to distrust of law enforcement—a concern the Safe Place program aims to address.

"A lot of times there are practical things that we can get done that don’t necessarily involve a police force or the criminal justice system, and this is one of those things," Velásquez said. "If we can make each one of our recreation centers a safe place for people, then it’s just another opportunity to have safe space in the community."