City of Austin to increase public safety efforts around homeless center downtown

Several organizations fighting to end homelessness have partnered with the city of Austin and the Austin Police Department to increase public safety efforts around the downtown homeless center known as the ARCH.

Several organizations fighting to end homelessness have partnered with the city of Austin and the Austin Police Department to increase public safety efforts around the downtown homeless center known as the ARCH.

Starting Aug. 15, the area around the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, or ARCH, in downtown Austin will start to see more of a police presence as part of a multifaceted effort to solve the homeless problem.

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.

Outreach efforts

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."

Street drugs

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.

By Marie Albiges
Marie Albiges was the editor for the San Marcos, Buda and Kyle edition of Community Impact Newspaper. She covered San Marcos City Council, San Marcos CISD and Hays County Commissioners Court. Marie previously reported for the Central Austin edition. Marie moved to Austin from Williamsburg, Va. in 2016 and was born in France. She has since moved on from Community Impact in May 2018.


Travis County has added 3,069 new confirmed cases over the past week from July 6-12. (Community Impact Staff)
Travis County adds 3,069 new coronavirus cases over past week

Travis County has added 3,069 new confirmed cases over the past week from July 6-12.

A sign directs voters inside Ridgetop Elementary School in North Central Austin. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
11.8% of voters in Travis County have voted early since June 29, exceeding 2018 primary numbers

More than 97,000 Travis County residents have voted in person or by mail. The turnout far surpassed the combined early and Election Day totals in the 2018 primary run-off election.

A photo of the potential Tesla property
Travis County updates Tesla incentive package, pushing for $1 billion-plus investment from the company

Poised for a possible July 13 vote, Travis County has released a refined incentives structure proposal with electric carmaker Tesla.

Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath announced in a June 30 State Board of Education meeting that students will be taking the STAAR in the 2020-21 school year. (Courtesy Pixabay)
Education organizations call for STAAR requirements to be waived another year

Gov. Greg Abbott waived the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, testing requirements in March of earlier this year in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

With a clinical background in internal, pulmonary and critical care medicine, Corry has been with BCM for 20 years. He now focuses primarily on inflammatory lung diseases, such as asthma and smoking-related chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases. (Graphic by Ronald Winters/Community Impact Newspaper)
Q&A: Baylor College of Medicine's Dr. David Corry discusses immunity, vaccine production amid COVID-19 pandemic

Rapid development and distribution of a vaccine worldwide and successful achievement of herd immunity will be key players in determining the lifespan of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Dr. David Corry, a professor of Medicine in the Immunology, Allergy and Rheumatology Section at Baylor College of Medicine.

Origin Hotel, located in the Mueller development in East Austin, broke ground July 6. (Rendering courtesy The Thrash Group)
Origin Hotel breaks ground in Mueller development

The five-story, 120-room hotel will be located at the corner of McBee and Aldrich streets.

Austin Eastciders will be opening a new taproom and restaurant soon on Barton Springs Road. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin Eastciders prepares to open new taproom and restaurant on Barton Springs Road

The cidery has not given an opening date for its new location yet, but it has painted the space and put up new signs.

Gourdough's filed for bankruptcy June 23. The South Lamar brick-and-mortar location and its food truck both remain open. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
South Lamar donut spot Gourdough's files for bankruptcy

Court documents show that the owners of Gourdough's poured $1.79 million into a San Antonio location that opened in 2019.

The new partnership will provide on-site, same-day testing and results for assisted-living facility staff and their residents. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
State announces partnership for increased COVID-19 testing for patients, staff at assisted-living facilities, nursing homes

These test sites will help the state work toward the goal of processing up to 100,000 tests in the first month.

Steamies Dumplings and Sazan Ramen are both open in the Crescent development on Airport Boulevard. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
Next-door neighbors Steamies Dumplings, Sazan Ramen both open in the Crescent development

The two new restaurants are both open for dine-in as well as takeout.