Condoms-in-trees effort in Austin park takes officials by surprise

Austin Health and Human Services employees have been hanging bags of condoms and lube from trees at Walnut Creek Park since last month to promote safe sex — though neither the HHS director nor the city Parks and Recreation Department knew about it, directors said Friday.

Parks employees took the bags down Thursday, considering them litter, but did not immediately know they came from a city initiative, said Parks Director Sara Hensley.

“Plastic bags, of course, can fall into the creek and hurt critters,” she said. “Then we found out it was an effort to educate the public about safe sex, which we absolutely support, but I’m not sure hanging something from a tree is the best way to get the message across.”

“We have to weigh, is this appropriate,” she added. “Our parks are open to everyone, including young children and others.”

HHS Director Shannon Jones said he didn’t know about the initiative within his department until Friday morning, after a KXAN report broke the news Thursday evening.

“We’ve been informed of the activity as of today (Friday)…but it falls within our department, so we are ultimately responsible,” he said. “Most of the programs that we do, we have a vetting process. We have reminded our staff of that.”

KXAN credited the program to Akesha Johnson-Smothers, a program manager for HIV prevention. According to her Facebook page, she began working for the city this year, after nearly a decade with the Texas Department of State Health Services. Jones said there would be an investigation into the communication and vetting concerning the condom program and possible disciplinary action.

But he strongly defended innovative efforts to combat HIV transmission. Walnut Creek Park is an area the city has identified where HIV transmissions are a problem, particularly among gay men, he said. Fifty three people were diagnosed with HIV in Austin in the first three months of 2016, according to state data. Last year, 288 people were diagnosed in Travis County.

“The rates of HIV in our community are high,” Jones said. “We need to use traditional and nontraditional efforts to reduce the spread of disease.”

Staff members first put the bags of condoms, lube and safe sex information in the park last month, Jones said. They then replenished them Wednesday after, apparently, the first items were used. Walnut Creek Park was the only park targeted. It’s unclear how many bags were placed there, but staff said they weren’t pervasive.

“It’s not like they were trying to decorate the trees,” said Carole Barasch, a department spokeswoman.

Leslie Pool, the City Council member who represents the district, had just heard about the condoms Friday. She called the effort well-intentioned but said “we need to do it in a more appropriate way.”

Robert Meadows, president of the Walnut Creek Neighborhood Association, burst out laughing when informed of the program, but said association bylaws prevented him from having a public opinion on political issues. He said restrooms at the park have always been known as a meeting place for sex.

Sloan Foster and Renee Pipin, friends who sometimes meet at the park to let their dogs play, said they didn’t have a problem with the bags if they were effective.

“I don’t think it will be real attractive, but if it’s a way to get people to prevent STDs, then that’s great,” Pipin said.

Hensley, who also found out about the program Friday morning, said HHS leaders had apologized to her for the miscommunication. She echoed Jones’ concern about HIV transmission, but said, from a parks perspective, she was concerned with plastic and keeping parks places friendly for kids to play.

She added that hanging condoms from trees, while she gave HHS credit for creativity, was unexpected.

“In my whole career, I never thought I’d be having this conversation,” she said.

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