Downtown group holds forum on growing homeless concerns

There has been a 34% increase in the homeless/transient population in downtown Austin according to officials with the Downtown Austin Alliance.  Police data indicates the population boom hasn't translated into a similar spike in crime - but there is a perception that parts of downtown are no longer safe.

Street-corner encampments, like this one under I-35 between 6th and 8th streets are becoming familiar sights. It’s a growing trend that’s seems to be getting out of control.

"It looks like a refugee camp, except there is less sanitation,” said Steve Basile who owns a restaurant and bar on 6th.

The increase in the homeless and transient population, Basile said, has become a concern for some of his regular customers.

"I think we have a policing gap, particularly in the daytime, we don’t have enough beat cops walking around to literally get to know the folks who get on the street, I think we clearly have a shelter capacity problem, and the elephant in the room is the shelter is the elephant, it is literally in the center of the largest collection of liquor licenses in the state."
Basile said he raised that point while attending a forum at St. David's church Wednesday morning. The gathering was organized by the Downtown Austin Alliance. There was a lot of the discussion about how to expand social services and mental health programs, according to Alliance V.P. Bill Brice.

"What our objective is; is to try to get the ARCH to operate in a manner that it was designed and intended. Right now the ARCH is over capacity, sleeping more people at night than what it was built to sleep and serving more people during the daytime than what they were built to serve."

To address that Brice said he supports the idea of ramping up new housing opportunities.

"I think if people were offered safe and stable hosing, housing first, that you find more people would take that housing."

Brice disagreed with the assessment that the majority of those on the street appear to be transients who just want to live off the grid.

While the discussion continues over what type of new comprehensive social services program should be developed, it’s up to the Austin Police Department to keep things under control. There are special enforcement initiatives being done, according to APD Lt. Todd Smith, to weed out the violent element.

"Well we are trying to do the best we can with what we have."

But Smith added, it is not possible for the city to police its way out of the problem by hauling everyone living on the streets off to jail.

"First of all its not illegal to be homeless, and so I think a lot of people say they don’t look like me, they don’t have what I have, they look dangerous, they shouldn't be on our streets, but in reality this is a public place, we are free to go and do what we want in public as long as it’s not against the law, and so an eyesore to some may be a desperation to others."

It's a delicate balance between compassion and protection as well as an all-day struggle with crowd management.

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