Examining homelessness in downtown Austin—and the plan to curb it

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On a January night this year in downtown Austin, when hundreds of volunteers performed a headcount of homeless individuals in Austin, 178 people were without shelter within a quarter-mile of the city’s largest homelessness resources. Across the city, that number rose to 832.

Now, Mayor Steve Adler wants to charge tourists with getting those people housed. His plan, which would yield millions of dollars annually, would place an additional tax on hoteliers as well as use property taxes within the designated downtown district for homeless initiatives.

“We’ve been consistently calling for more money to build up the whole system of response to homelessness,” said Ann Howard, executive director of the nonprofit Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, or ECHO.

She said downtown Austin lacks the resources needed to quickly house people, which is the ultimate goal for ending homelessness.

“If we received money immediately, we would increase the connection between outreach and engagement, and shelter and housing,” she said.

Outlining a plan to support the homeless

The mayor has proposed two ways to provide more money to combat homelessness: a capital funding source that could be used to provide more permanent supportive housing and expand shelters for people experiencing homelessness and an operations fund that could be used for expanded services to the homeless population. (via Source: City of Austin/Community Impact Newspaper)

Outreach efforts

Modeled after the Houston Police Department’s efforts, the Austin Police Department in June 2016 launched the Homeless Outreach Street Team, which comprises police officers, behavior and mental health specialists, a paramedic and a social worker who meet with people experiencing homelessness downtown and in West Campus to find out their greatest needs.

In a year, HOST contacted 947 individuals experiencing homelessness and helped 889 receive services, according to ECHO.

Mitchell Gibbs, executive director of Front Steps—the organization that runs the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless at the corner of Seventh and Neches streets—said although these efforts are helpful, more needs to be done. He said about 75 percent of the people loitering on the sidewalk outside 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. Observation also tells us that people are coming to socialize.”

— Mitchell Gibbs, executive director of Front Steps

K2, the inexpensive synthetic marijuana drug with lethal effects, is still being steadily distributed around downtown, West Campus and St. Edward’s University, according to Gibbs.

“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.

Crack is resurging in Central Texas, according to Gibbs, and a deadly synthetic opioid called fentanyl has also found its way into Austin.

Gibbs said one item on his wish list is recovery and rehabilitative services for homeless individuals addicted to drugs and alcohol.

“At this moment we don’t have the detox beds and treatment [services]that a city of our size should have,” he said.

Click to see stats on homelessness in Travis County

Click to see stats on homelessness in Travis County

‘It’s the fact that I see them’

Outreach efforts to get people off the streets and into housing is something the downtown business community also supports.

“‘It’s not what they are doing; it’s the fact that I see them,’” Gibbs recalled of complaints he regularly receives from downtown-goers and business owners around ARCH.

He said he often gets calls from people asking him to “do something about this [homeless]guy in my neighborhood,” and although organizations such as Front Steps partner well with APD, they are not responsible for what happens outside of their walls.

“Where our building hits the sidewalk, I have no legal control on what happens on that sidewalk or what happens on that street. So calling me to tell me I need to clear the sidewalk is probably not something I’m going to be able to do a lot with,” he said.

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 ARCH said they regularly see fighting, drug dealing and prostitution as well as public urination and defecation.

“It isn’t pleasant, obviously,” said Brian Rush, who has owned Tears of Joy Hot Sauce Shop on East Sixth Street for 25 years. “Customers comment on it; I see customers get harassed by homeless people all the time.”

Rush said he does not think tourists should be responsible for paying for what he calls a city problem.

“You’re punishing the people that are visiting the town and spending the money,” he said. “That just seems to hurt the people it’s attempting to accommodate.”

Sternschein and Rush said they want to see ARCH moved somewhere that is still easily accessible but is not as attractive for panhandling, but APD officer Shelley Morton said that is not an option.

“No other part of town is going to say, ‘Yeah, we’ll take it,’” she said.

Morton 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 helped some homeless people 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.

Morton said homeless people going to ARCH often runs counter to HOST’s outreach mission, as she ends up breaking up fights or dealing with emergency medical situations around ARCH.

Sternschein, who also sat on the Visitor Impact Task Force in charge of recommending how hotel occupancy taxes should be used, said the mayor’s funding proposal is a step in the right direction.

“That piece of the puzzle is potentially solved, and now the idea is, ‘What exactly should we do [with the money]?’” he said. “It’s just a great step forward to be at that point.”

The wish list

The mayor’s plan would yield an overall $30 million in capital funding for more housing or shelters in addition to $4 million annually to expand services.

More efforts launched Aug. 15 by ECHO, the city of Austin and other organizations include increasing police presence, providing temporary lighting and public bathrooms, increasing street cleaning, identifying ways to distribute food to other parts of Austin, and expanding access to services and permanent housing for the homeless.

Gibbs said there are no plans to expand ARCH, which sleeps as many as 230 men at night and serves as a triage emergency center during the day.

Ellen Richards, chief strategy officer at Integral Care, which provides services to homeless individuals with brain-based disorders, said the city needs more affordable permanent supportive housing to achieve the city’s “housing first” model, which seeks to place a permanent roof over one’s head before addressing issues such as employment or health.

“Probably our most significant barrier is the lack of housing,” she said, adding once Integral Care has declared a client eligible for permanent supportive housing, he or she must wait three to six months before being housed.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, who represents downtown, sponsored a City Council resolution Aug. 17. The measure aims to identify five city-owned properties that could be used as temporary emergency shelters—a direct response to her constituents’ concerns, she said.

“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.”

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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.
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