ARCH director says camping outside shelter becoming emergency situation

The people who run the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless said the homeless situation outside of their facility is on the verge of becoming a downtown emergency.

"Since the ordinance has happened, we've seen a higher density of individuals, we've seen more structured tents pop up, more permanency," said Greg McCormack, executive director of Front Steps, the nonprofit that runs the ARCH.

Leaders at the shelter said it would be a mistake to wait until additional housing facilities are built before taking steps to address it. 

"If they're going to be rock and mortar structures it's probably too far off. I think we need to do something this year," McCormack said. 

Wednesday, volunteers from Stubb's and employees at the ARCH handed out water bottles to those sleeping outside the building. It was a small gesture to begin to break down the walls keeping dozens of homeless people from seeking services inside. 

"With just the number of individuals that we're seeing on the outside, and the folks who have been here for long periods of time, we've got a situation that soon could get a lot bigger," said McCormack.

Inside, the shelter offers beds, food, laundry, showers, case management and a cold place to relax. Outside, employees and the homeless community are experiencing ever growing chaos. 

"No, it ain't never safe when you go to sleep at night. You never know what's going to happen, never," said Randy Kirby, who said he's been living outside the ARCH since 2003.  

Even with mounting safety concerns, about 80 percent of people living on the outside of the building never go in. 

"And that's not because we are at capacity or turning anybody away, it's just a choice to not come in," McCormack said.  

"Because there's too many men in there, too many headaches in there, and I can't sleep around a lot of men," said Kirby, referring to his reasons for staying outside the facility.   

McCormack said building a new shelter in South Austin likely won't make a dent around the downtown shelter. 

"I think it's great! Another 100 beds will really help. I don't think, with my engagement with individuals outside the ARCH, that many individuals outside will go to that shelter," said McCormack. 

"The new shelter they're building out here? I heard about it. I won't go," Kirby said.  

McCormack finds many people living outside the ARCH have developed their own community there and, after years in the elements, they are more comfortable on the street. 

"If they're going to go inside somewhere, then we need more shelter space," McCormack said. "If they are not going to go inside somewhere, then we have to look at other solutions. And I think that those solutions are going to have to be outside."

Tuesday, Austin Mayor Steve Adler proposed placing camping restrictions on certain busy streets and at specific locations. The area surrounding the ARCH was one of them. 

"That's an unsafe place, so it is something that I think needs to be a relatively high priority to the degree that we don't let people sit or lie near the ARCH, but if we haven't provided homes or places for them to go then all we're doing is moving people from one place to another place," Adler said.  

In June, City Council asked the city manager to consider at least 10 locations, one in each council district, that would allow camping.  

"What the manager came back and said is, ‘Let's focus on getting housing all over the city, rather than focusing on an open camping area,'" said Adler.  

McCormack thinks that's a mistake.

"I think a sanctioned encampment is something to look at. I think an emergency shelter location, like a Red Cross situation, where we have a temporary structure, where we could get a couple of hundred individuals inside, provide services, provide resources… We know when people become healthier they make better decisions, and we're able to move forward easier," McCormack said. 

The mayor has reservations about that idea. 

"I haven't been able to find a city yet that opened up a camping area that was actually able to close it once it happens," said Adler.