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City facing challenges in changing sidewalks

Wednesday, September 18, 2019 by Jo Clifton

When Stephanie Hayden, director of Austin Public Health, sent out a memo last Friday explaining improvements the city was making to the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, she underlined one sentence: “Please note the sidewalk construction is scheduled to begin Monday, September 16 and is estimated to last two weeks.”

Although the announcement just three days before the start of construction seemed rushed to Eric Goff, a member of the city’s Zoning and Platting Commission and an advocate for the homeless, changes at the ARCH, including the sidewalk changes, have been in the works for several years.

The Austin Public Works Department is managing the project on Seventh Street from Neches Street halfway down the block toward Red River Street and the eastern portion of Neches halfway down the block toward Eighth Street. The cost of the project is approximately $54,000 and comes out of the Austin Public Health budget for this fiscal year.

Those changes will purposefully narrow the sidewalk while not blocking access to those wanting to enter the ARCH, according to health department spokeswoman Jen Samp. Samp said the sidewalk project had to go forward now because the $54,000 budgeted for it would disappear if not spent this fiscal year, which ends Oct. 1.

While Goff and a few others have complained that reducing the width of the sidewalk will make the ARCH less accessible, staffers at the facility disagree.

Employees of Front Steps, which runs the ARCH, say that people camping out in front are not the same people as those accessing ARCH services. Front Steps Executive Director Greg McCormack told Fox 7 in August that about 80 percent of the people camping on the outside of the building never go inside – not because the center is at capacity, but because they’re simply choosing not to avail themselves of its services.

In addition to the sidewalk change, improvements to the ARCH include resurfacing of interior walls and floors, new security equipment at the entrance and a new information desk, as well as new laundry equipment. Improvements scheduled for Fiscal Year 2019-20 include additional street lighting, possible drinking fountains and restroom improvements, and storage units for personal belongings, according to Hayden.

The sidewalk changes are also a small part of a long-planned rehabilitation of the building in conjunction with changes to how ARCH services are provided. Council Member Kathie Tovo, who represents District 9, including downtown, told the Austin Monitor that she has been hearing complaints about the sidewalk situation for several years.

Tovo noted that there was a pilot study two years ago that highlighted the need for changes to an area often seen as an open-air drug market. The drug sales were impacting the safety of people seeking services, Tovo said, and part of the pilot study included having officers patrolling outside the ARCH 24/7.

Tovo said her office had received one or two complaints this week from people who were concerned about narrowing the sidewalk, as well as an expression of concern from a nearby business owner. The downtown business owner said that since construction on the sidewalk had started, the people who had previously been sleeping or camping in front of the ARCH were now outside of her business.

Mayor Steve Adler said via email, “We are working on a plan for people experiencing homelessness around the outside of the ARCH that recognizes merely telling people they can’t be there only moves them somewhere else, perhaps a few blocks away. We can and will do better because we need to end homelessness, not just move people around. A growing coalition will be recommending next steps this week, building on the work in June and earlier, where we focus on the individual people, develop housing and services strategies for each, and then help them move off our streets. The goal is to have no camping in the city, including around the ARCH. Let’s work together to find these people homes.”

The fact that the sidewalk issue came up this week is just a coincidence, but it highlights tensions that City Council members will have to deal with as they consider reinstating some form of ordinances prohibiting camping or sitting on different city streets today.

Council will be considering two different proposals for handling the thorny issue of where the homeless may continue to camp. Council will hold a meeting to address this topic, and the current proposal, this afternoon.

Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

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