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Trees at Texas park decked with condoms

AUSTIN (KXAN) – A bag with condoms is not what you would expect to see at a park or most of the public places you visit during the week, but it has people talking. The ones hanging the bags from trees say that’s the point.

Just ask Walnut Creek Park regular Connie Gearhart. “We come here 2 to 5 times a week,” she said walking her two pups. “Two weeks ago I noticed there were these bags hanging down and I looked at them and noticed that they had condoms and lube in them.”

The idea was born just last month from Austin Public Health to encourage safe sex to a different demographic.

“It’s just something creative, something unique and we are actually evaluating to see the effectiveness because we want to make sure the access is easy,” said Akeshia Johnson Smothers, HIV/STD program manager for the department.

The Austin Parks and Recreation department didn’t know about the bags until now. While they acknowledge the message is important, it’s unfortunately considered littering. “Think about the accumulative nature of trash, or things that accumulate in the park. You want to make sure you take those items with you,” said Park Ranger LeAnn Ishconer.

Walnut Creek Park has suffered from a reputation of being where people are arrested for having sex in public. The health department says that wasn’t the reason for the location. Rather, just a new approach to raising awareness.

“It’s not intended to be in your face or be demeaning or anything of that nature. It’s actually intended to provide there’s information for you to access education. Not just the safe sex tools. It gives you our Facebook website for you to go there and learn about who we are and what we do and why we do it. It’s more than just condoms. Look at it that way,” said Johnson Smothers.

For park visitors like Gearhart, it’s not an eye sore, it’s an eye opener she can get on board with. “This is the kind of initiative that some people need. They need to have an opportunity to see it right there when they’re going to need to use it,” she said.

Austin Public Health uses a variety of outreach resources to offer HIV and STD screenings including a traveling mobile unit. They also offer testing every other Wednesday at the Connelly-Yerwood House off 12th Street.

The number of HIV diagnoses in Travis County is on the rise. Last year 288 people were diagnosed, the highest number in at least the last 10 years.