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Homeless service providers say pilot program made downtown Austin safer

Wednesday, September 27, 2017 by Syeda Hasan

An effort to reduce crowds loitering outside the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless has made downtown safer, local service providers say.

A 30-day initiative was launched last month to address homelessness outside the ARCH, where dozens of people congregate on lawn chairs and blankets on any given day. The goal was to disrupt the environment that’s led to overcrowding and drug-related crime there.

Service providers increased their presence, added lighting and implemented new safety measures. They also changed the way they distribute free meals.

Ann Howard, executive director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, said there’s only so much you can expect in 30 days, but that she feels conditions have improved.

“I think the area is safer and cleaner, and the business community appreciates that,” she said. “The people stuck on the street appreciate it. Everybody appreciates it, you know? It smells fresher down here.”

Service providers compiled a list of 75 homeless people who often gather outside the ARCH. They looked at each of their cases individually and assessed what services to connect them with. But with limited resources, Howard said, they had to prioritize who to help based on how vulnerable they are.

“Within that 30 days, I know two signed leases and moved on to housing,” she said. “Others were matched with programs and case management, but probably over half of them are still waiting.”

Another goal was to cut down on drug dealing around the ARCH. During the pilot program, the Austin Police Department had two officers stationed there around the clock.

Over the summer, Cmdr. Jennifer Stephenson said, APD’s street narcotics unit patrolled the area as part of an ongoing operation downtown. Police issued warrants for 81 people.

“Fifty-three percent of the suspects that were issued warrants against for delivery of crack cocaine were reported to not be homeless,” Stephenson said.

The department is still calculating just how much it cost to have officers stationed at the ARCH 24/7. It’s set to release those numbers in the coming weeks.

“Due to funding constraints, we had to pull that back to where now we’re just there 16 hours a day as call load permits,” Stephenson said.

Howard wants to get more people out of shelters and into permanent housing. She said previous pushes to house homeless veterans and youth have shown it can be done.

“We don’t always need to have police down here,” she said. “We don’t always need to have port-a-potties on the sidewalk. If we could increase the flow from shelter to housing, we can shrink the role that shelter plays in this continuum of care.”

Ultimately, Howard said, service providers need more funding to help and house more people. She said she’s hoping the pilot program demonstrates that need.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT.

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