Association won't return to Austin Convention Center because of "aggressive" homeless population

Just when the Austin Convention Center is planning an expansion, a client says they're not coming back.
FOX 7 obtained a memo from an association that said attendees were so aggressively accosted by the homeless that they will no longer consider Austin as a venue site.
FOX 7's Noelle Newton looks into how police and downtown stakeholders are working to make our out-of-town guests feel more comfortable.

This summer attendees to a conference at the Austin Convention Center reported such a negative experience while in town that it prompted the organizer of the event to send a letter to the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau.

American Jail Association President Robert Kasabian wrote while they ultimately produced a successful conference, “many of our attendees were aggressively approached, solicited for money and food and accosted by homeless citizens...we did not see attempts by local authorities, community groups or businesses to address this relentless problem. For a city on the rise in the meetings market, we believe Austin needs to dedicate efforts to curb the homeless population overall in the city."

He recognized the shelter may be relocated in the future saying, "there has to be a way, in the meantime, to ensure that conference attendees, tourists and the citizens of Austin will be able to navigate the city and feel safe and not harassed by others...until the situation is addressed, the American Jail Association will not be considering Austin for a future venue site."

Austin Police Department Lt. James Nisula was one of the people made aware of the complaint.

"It's very unfortunate to get that letter,” said Lt. James Nisula.

Nisula oversees officers who patrol downtown.

"The week of that convention we didn't see any spike in crime in that area to indicate to us that we need to adjust our resources around the convention center area. At the time we actually had some spikes in crimes in residential neighborhoods and we were deploying our officers over there to try to correct that situation with the burglaries,” said Nisula.

"This was the first time we'd heard a negative response that affected a buying decision for Austin,” said Mark Tester, Austin Convention Center department director.

Austin Convention Center Department Director Mark Tester says while a customer not wanting to return is new, they have had negative feedback about panhandling.

In fact, FOX 7 obtained an email from the director of sales addressing the American Jail Association letter that states:

"This isn't the first time we've had a group complain. I did notice some homeless guys harassing an international guest with the DAC recently. When he wouldn't give them money the guys started yelling racial harassment at the guest. I intervened and told them to stop it that we didn't talk to people like that in Austin ...of course I was called a few choice words too."
The Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau brought stakeholders together to discuss the issue.

"Clearly this is something that is affecting our visitors both on the meetings and convention side and the leisure side. Again, it's not just visitors, it's local residents so we want to make sure this is something we address and find pro-active solutions to,” said Shilpa Bakre.

Nisula says APD immediately took action. His officers are now checking the convention center schedule and making weekly directed patrol assignments for district representatives. Those are officers who aren't responding from call to call.

"We have officers on foot and on bicycles, and on ATVs check the area around the convention center,” said Nisula.
Patrol officers have also been ordered to circle the convention center when not tied up on a call.

According to the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition the homeless population is expected to hit 2,197 this year. It peaked in 2011 at 2,362.

All parties agree it takes a well-rounded approach to solving the issue. Those plans will be discussed with the American Jail Association as the city tries to win them back.

Tester says 98 percent of guests are pleased with their experience.

"We do not want to dismiss the American Jail Association's claims however, our customers are very happy in Austin, they feel safe in Austin, they're very successful here in drawing attendees and feel very comfortable in doing business here. And, not that we ever want to rest on our laurels, we want to continue to work hard, but we a big city, we are a growing city, we're going to be a changing city. We all just need to continue to adapt and help each other,” said Tester.

The convention center does have a security team of 50 officers. Those officers patrol the convention center grounds as well as the two guest parking garages. During events, more officers are brought on as contract employees.