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Increased support outside ARCH to target crime, help homeless

Thursday, August 10, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

Four months after city officials called on the Austin Police Department and other public safety departments to address a spike in drug use around the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, the next phase of help is about to begin.

Starting Aug. 15, a coalition of public safety and social services groups will begin a concentrated effort to reduce drug use further while also offering more services to the homeless who gather outside the vastly overused facility in the heart of downtown Austin. The tactics involved include increased police presence, installing temporary restrooms, altering the schedule of food availability to make it harder for drug dealers and other criminals to target the homeless population, and identifying more ways to find housing and needed services for those experiencing homelessness.

The effort is not expected to be a long-term solution to address the homeless crisis and related crime in the area, which has become a major issue for business owners and patrons of the many nightclubs in the blocks surrounding the ARCH. Social service organizations that will offer help and work with city staff include the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, Caritas, Front Steps and the Salvation Army.

Mayor Steve Adler said the city and its residents have a moral obligation to help the roughly 2,000 homeless people throughout the city. He said the tactics that will be used in the area around Seventh and Neches streets were developed in part by the Homeless Outreach Street Team that formed in early 2016 to address homelessness in the downtown and West Campus areas of Austin.

“The community will be there for these people and we know it will require additional resources, and the biggest thing is we need to find homes to go along with those resources,” he said. “We’ve seen the results of so many people congregating and hanging around the ARCH, with criminals preying on those people, and an increase in things like aggressive panhandling.”

Adler said his preferred long-term solution for reducing homelessness is a component tied to the proposed expansion of the Austin Convention Center, which would see hotels in the area tax themselves at 1 percent to generate up to $4 million per year for homeless services. City Council would need to approve the Hotel Occupancy Tax increase to fund that expansion, and is expected to consider the issue this fall in addition to budget sessions and revisions of the city’s Land Development Code.

The presence of the homeless in the area reached a sort of crisis point this spring when a wave of use of the synthetic drug K2 around the ARCH led to dozens of emergency medical response calls that for a time stretched local emergency rooms thin. Stephen Sternschein, co-owner of the Empire Control Room & Garage nightclub a block away from the ARCH, said police attention to the drug issue has curbed some of the problem, but more work is needed.

“There’s two sides to this, and one of them is my employees that have to clean up after transients that have gone to the bathroom, used drugs or had sex outside of the property,” he said. “The other is that when people feel safer and are more willing to come out to the (Red River Cultural District) then that makes a financial difference in addition to the quality of life improvement.”

Sternschein, who is a member of the Red River Cultural District’s merchants association, said removing the drug dealing and other criminal elements around the ARCH should be the biggest priority for those trying to improve the area.

“I’m not sure we give the police department all the tools they need to get those people off of the street,” he said. “Things like temporary bathrooms are a good idea, because as long as it gives people an option that isn’t my exit vestibule, that’s great.”

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