Located at the corner of Seventh and Neches streets, the ARCH—operated by nonprofit organization Front Steps—currently sleeps as many as 230 men at night and serves as a triage emergency center during the day.
On Friday, Mayor Steve Adler and Ann Howard, executive director for the nonprofit Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, or ECHO, announced the increased public safety efforts to the area.
"More people are coming downtown to access services, including shelter and food, which is leading to overcrowding near these service locations," Howard said in a news release.
The ARCH is co-located with other agencies including Austin Travis County Integral Care and the Homeless Health Clinic, with the Salvation Army Center, Caritas of Austin and the Austin Police Department located in the vicinity. Although helpful for those seeking housing resources, people experiencing homelessness are often clustered around the Red River District.
Specific efforts, which were put together by the city of Austin; the Austin Police Department; District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo, who represents the downtown area; ECHO and other organizations fighting to end homelessness include the following:
- Increasing police presence and anti-drug initiatives
- Increasing temporary lighting in key areas
- Installing temporary restrooms
- Increasing street cleaning in key areas
- Transforming how, when and where food is distributed to prevent those experiencing homelessness from being targeted
- Identifying ways to expand access to services and permanent housing to help people move from homelessness to stability
"Addressing this situation holistically through a multi-pronged approach will lead to a safer and healthier downtown for everyone," Howard wrote.
She told Community Impact Newspaper the efforts will be gradual, but the Salvation Army Center and APD have already begun installing lights around the area.
"We need resources," she said. "We need the community to get involved and help us meet their needs."
No new funding will be used for these efforts, according to Tovo. Organizations will pull from their existing budgets to help fund increased staff presence as well as lighting and other cleanup initiatives.
She said after a month, the organizations involved will assess their progress and see if they meet predicted outcomes.
"The idea is really to make that area safer, to try some new things, to learn from it and to see how we should move forward as a community," she said.
Since June 2016, a Homeless Outreach Street Team, or HOST, comprised of Austin police officers, behavior and mental health specialists, a paramedic and a social worker, have been meeting with people experiencing homelessness downtown and in West Campus to find out their greatest needs.
From June 2016 to May, HOST has made contact with 600 individuals experiencing homelessness, served 500 in some capacity and provided services related to housing services for 300 people.
Outreach efforts to get people off the streets and into housing is something the downtown business community is also a fan of.
Empire Control Room owner Steve Sternschein, who leads the Red River Merchants Association, said his employees have to bleach the area around the music venue’s doorstep every day to clean the feces and urine left by the homeless.
He and other business owners near the ARCH said they regularly see fighting, drug dealing and prostitution as well as public urination and defecation.
Sternchein told Community Impact Newspaper Thursday he wanted to see more police presence in the area around his music venue at night.
"These folks who are either drug addicts or drug dealers, they prey on those folks and hang around outside," he said.
Howard said there is no set number of additional officers that will be policing the area at this time.
Tovo said these efforts are a direct response to what she has been hearing from the downtown community.
"My hope is that this initiative will also remind our community that these are efforts that we need to participate in as a community, whether that’s through volunteering or supporting through financial contributions," she said. "It really does need to be a community response."
Front Steps Executive Director Mitchell Gibbs said about 75 percent of the people loitering on the sidewalk outside of the ARCH are not engaged in any of its services, and he wants that number to drop.
“Observation tells us that a number of them are down here participating in criminal activity,” he said. “Observation also tells us that people are coming to socialize.”
K2, the inexpensive synthetic marijuana drug with lethal effects, is still being readily distributed around downtown, West Campus and St. Edward’s University, according to Gibbs, who called the drug "insidious."
“The predators that we are concerned about are the folks that are bringing in the quantities and they are either selling it directly to homeless, or they are putting it out there to drug dealers that are targeting homeless out on the street,” he said. "Now it is prevalent to the point where the drug itself is living on the street, and there is a ready supply of it.”
Crack is resurging in Central Texas, according to Gibbs, and a new deadly synthetic opioid called fentanyl has also found its way into Austin.
APD officer Shelly Borton has worked the downtown police beat for nine years and knows many of the homeless individuals. A year ago, she became part of the HOST team and has convinced some homeless people that previously refused services to change their minds, place themselves in a rehabilitation program and get housed.
“It’s been cool for me to see some of these people actually get a place to live,” she said.
Borton said going to the ARCH is often counterproductive to the HOST’s mission of outreach because she often ends up breaking up fights or dealing with emergency medical situations.
She said she would like to see HOST expand to provide more resources to those who want it.
"There’s people out there that do want help and are willing to work for it," Borton said.