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Business leaders raise concerns about homelessness

Thursday, June 7, 2018 by Jack Craver

It’s not just advocates for the homeless who have serious concerns about homelessness downtown. Businesses say that the mass of misery on the streets is a threat to downtown commerce and the city’s ability to attract visitors.

The effects of the homeless population on business came up in a discussion at the Public Safety Commission about ordinances that critics say “criminalize” homelessness. Those ordinances allow the police to ticket people for sleeping or sitting in certain public spaces as well as for engaging in “aggressive” panhandling.

Marissa McGovern, general manager at 508 Tequila Bar and Pelóns Tex-Mex on Red River Street, said that belligerent behavior from mentally ill people on the streets has made it hard to attract patrons and employees.

“There are hundreds of mentally disturbed people lining the sidewalk around the ARCH, sleeping on pavement while hordes of rats literally dance around their sleeping heads. Their faces are pressed against urine-soaked sidewalks,” she said.

“From the front steps of my bar, I’ve seen people defecating on the sides of buildings, turning tricks behind an ATM machine, selling drugs in dark corners,” she later added.

Bill Brice, vice president of operations for the Downtown Austin Alliance, said the organization is constantly fielding complaints from visitors about the conduct of panhandlers or others experiencing homelessness. Brice read from a list of negative comments that he had received from recent visitors, some of whom he suggested are “not used to the interaction” with the homeless.

“I cannot recommend your city to others,” one recent visitor wrote. “We were hounded constantly by people asking for money.”

Brice urged the city not to do away with ordinances that allow the police to “protect everybody’s right to enjoy the public space,” but acknowledged that policing is not the long-term solution to the problem, which can only be addressed through more housing and treatment, he said.

The Austin Resource Center for the Homeless on Seventh Street, outside of which crowds of homeless people gather daily, “represents one of the biggest failures of our community,” said Brice.

“What is missing is appropriate shelter,” Brice added.

Ann Howard, executive director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), emphasized in an email to the Austin Monitor that the solution to the problem was to dramatically bolster resources to connect homeless people with housing. Howard and others have said that there needs to be twice as much spending – from public and private sources – to end homelessness in the community.

“We must balance the unmet need with the concerns of the business owners, but we should not tolerate anyone in (a) position to address the need to ignore the need,” she said. “Homelessness in Austin is at a crisis point, and it is derelict to not fund solutions to it.”

Howard said that she supported reviewing the ordinances against camping in public places, but she cautioned against repealing them without considering the potential negative consequences for the homeless, such as being charged with more serious offenses if the police are unable to ticket them for an ordinance violation. The more serious the offense, the less likely a homeless person will be able to find a landlord who will rent a unit to them.

“(Austin Police Department) data shows the ordinances actually protect people from stiffer penalties,” she said. “This is important as we work with property owners to make their units available.”

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