City's plan to fence off alley on Red River St. uncertain

The smell coming from the alley off Red River Street near the 7th Street intersection is impossible to ignore. Trash, old syringes, human feces and used condoms line the city-owned alley, which has become a common thoroughfare for people traveling from the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless to Waller Creek. 

City leaders in Austin said they've been trying to find a way to clean it up for several years. 

“It's crazy. What happened since 2013? It's not any better. It's turning into just a crazy thing,” said Richard Lynn, owner of Beerland, which sits just next to the alley.  

Business owners, whose property backs up to the alley, said they've asked the city for lighting, increased police patrols and a gate to restrict access to the area.

By the end of November, it looked like the city was finally on board. 

“It is a priority to figure out what we do in that particular place in Red River because it's dangerous and it's not healthy,” said Mayor Steve Adler.  

Emails sent to business owners in November said the City of Austin was planning to install a fence and gate with an estimated completion date of January 2019, but that date came and went. 

“I mean, if you look in the alley, they have not started construction at all. They literally have no idea when they might,” Lynn said. Now, plans for the gate seem less certain.

“You start talking about putting up a gate and, obviously, some people really like that and the fencing and that brings out of the woodwork folks that have reasons why that's not going to be a good thing… I'm not sure if it'll be a gate because of the issues that have been raised, it could be,” Adler said.  

“So it feels like nobody has a viable plan and they also said, ‘We'll update you when we have more information and we have no way of knowing when that'll be,’” said Lynn.  

In November, Adler said he would have something in place within four months. It's been three. 

“Come back in a month... I have one more month,” Adler said.  

At the same time, city leaders and business owners agree the alley is just a small piece of a larger problem, an increasing number of people living without shelter in Austin. 

“About a little over 2,000 people on any given night are homeless on our streets," said Adler. "That's a number that, while way too large, is not so large that we can't really do something about it in our community.” 

The mayor said City Council has already begun doing several things to tackle the city's homeless crisis. Mental health teams are meeting with those living on the street, Mobile Loaves and Fishes is working on the second Community First Village to build permanent housing for those experiencing homelessness and City Council approved a new contract with Front Steps to manage the ARCH differently. 

“If we can get these folks jobs, if we can get them housing, if we can get them the services they need, most of these folks will be able to right themselves,” Adler said. 

“Across Travis County we see more people outside and we see more people asking for help, so we've got to scale up the programs that work. I think a progressive Austin can do better,” said Ann Howard, executive director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition.

Currently, the City of Austin spends about $30 million to provide services to the homeless, but, in order to get everyone off the street, Howard said the city needs to double that. “In the 2019 budget, the city increased it by $3-4 million to address homelessness, but we asked for $30 million,” Howard said.  

“We're turning up a lot more money for that now. The housing bond, affordable housing bond of $250 million, part of that was for homelessness, the $30 million in excess capacity on Waller Creek tiff is money that's available for us,” said Adler.  

City leaders said support for service providers has increased from private donors as well. That includes Lynn who found his own way to help. 

“We'll just try to cast a positive light on all these organizations, and every month we highlight one and donate some proceeds from shows. And it's not a lot of money, and it's not much that we're doing, but maybe I can sleep at night at least by trying to do something,” Lynn said.  

When it comes to the alley, he can only hope city officials follow his lead. 

“Just commit to something and do your job,” said Lynn. Business owners on Red River said they have noticed Austin police have increased patrols along the alley. 



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