On any given night, about 2,200 people in Travis County experience homelessness.
The City of Austin has long struggled to find a way to help those who need it, while also trying to prevent criminals from taking advantage of those most vulnerable.
A recent initiative to clean up the area around the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless sought to do just that, but nearby business owners are conflicted about whether it made a positive impact on crime.
In the Red River entertainment district, people have gotten used to the unthinkable. “So they sleep there, they eat there, they do drugs there, they poop there and we have to clean all that stuff up every day before we start work,” said Co-owner of Empire Control Room Stephen Sternschein.
Several city groups became concerned by the growing crowd outside the ARCH so they joined forces to try and clean up the area. “For 30 days our goal was to change up what we were doing to try to disrupt the marketplace and by that I'm talking about the drug trade and folks that were hanging around down there that didn't need to be,” said Ann Howard, Executive Director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition or ECHO.
From August 15 to September 15, two Austin police officers were constantly stationed outside of the ARCH and food services were limited to people signed up for case management.
Austin police said it appeared to have made a positive impact near 7th Street and Neches.
“We feel that it appears to be cleaner, we see that there is not as much people hanging around and loitering in the area, as well as integral care case workers are reporting that clients that actually utilize services in the area,” said Austin Police Department downtown area Commander Jennifer Stephenson.
In fact, during the 30-day initiative, calls for emergency medical services reached the lowest number since 2015, but crime trends didn't show the same results. “It tended to be the same amount of crime numbers throughout the downtown area and across the city,” Stephenson said.
Crime report maps show the difference at the ARCH after the program ended in September. Crimes there dropped from about 40 per month to 20 per month. “So there's definitely been a marked decrease in the criminal activity around the ARCH center,” said Sternschein.
At the same time, other downtown areas saw a different trend.
“I would say there's an increase in people sleeping and using drugs and doing criminal activities in the areas that aren't the ARCH,” Sternschein said.
Churches just a few blocks from the ARCH have noticed an increase in people sleeping on their doorsteps too. And they have reported more incidents involving drugs and trespassing than in the past. “All we're doing is relocating the problem, nothing is actually getting fixed,” said Co-owner of The Sidewinder, Benjamin Corwin.
“We focused our attention on this one location and unfortunately what the criminal transients are doing is just moving their business to other locations in the same area,” Sternschein said.
Sternshein said the biggest concern is a marked increase in violent crime near his music venue.
“It seems like maybe we poked a lion so to speak and what we're dealing with right now is a reaction of this criminal element to having their main hub disrupted and so I think that's a really dangerous situation overall,” said Sternschein.
Austin police said they expected having permanent officers by the ARCH would relocate some criminals. “People don't want to be constantly under the scrutiny of police, so police are standing there, so that's always expected. Whenever we do one operation in one area, that will move to another area, we just have to then readjust resources and address that area, which we have done,” Stephenson said.
But Stephenson and Howard said the goal wasn't to end crime everywhere, it was to help deter criminals from preying on those most vulnerable. “I understand there's just as many people sleeping on the street. I need them to be safe while they're stuck sleeping on the street,” said Howard. APD and other agencies tried to do that without any additional funding.
“We didn't increase staff, we didn't increase shelter, we didn't increase the pathway to housing and so we can't end homelessness with peanuts,” Howard said.
“The issue isn't that the police aren't doing their best. I think it's that they're lacking the manpower to do what’s necessary to make the entire downtown area an uncomfortable place to transact criminal business,” said Sternschein.
Stephen said coming up with solutions that deter criminals, but not those who really want help, has always been difficult. “We 100 percent, all throughout the Red River district and me personally, support and want to take whatever steps we can to help address homelessness. What we also want to do though, is protect those people and ourselves and our patrons from criminals,” Sternschein said.
Stephen is currently working with first responders to close down the alley leading from the ARCH to Waller Creek which has become a main throughway for people dealing drugs.
He also encourages the City to reconsider difficult-to-enforce loitering laws.
But everyone in the Red River district agrees that when it comes to addressing homelessness city leaders need to do more. “We can do better than this,” said Corwin.
Although the 30-day initiative at the ARCH has ended, Austin police have committed to keeping two officers on site between 6 AM and 10 PM for the foreseeable future.