FOX 7 asks Austin leaders about panhandling and moving the ARCH

The Ending Community Homelessness Coalition says as of the last head-count in January, there were 2,138 people living on the streets of Austin -- a nearly 20% increase from the previous year.

On Tuesday morning, elected officials like Mayor Steve Adler were invited by the Downtown Austin Alliance to a forum on homelessness.

"We made great strides over the last year housing almost 700 veterans, taking them off our streets, putting them into homes.  But now we need to focus on other cohorts.  Women with children, those that are chronically homeless," Adler said.

One of the issues downtown is facing: panhandling.

Ann Howard, Executive Director of ECHO points out you can't classify all panhandlers as homeless.  Some just want money.  She says colleagues in Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio and Houston are noticing the same aggressive trend.

"They're all seeing more people sort of downtown on the street [with] aggressive behaviors.  And they attribute it to the synthetic marijuana...K-2.  It's a nasty drug that changes based on its makeup," Howard said.

"Panhandling is banned at night time here and it has been since 2005. But when people aggressively solicit money that's a different story than just casually asking someone for money, that's a problem that's very scary especially to our visitors to the community," said Bill Brice with the Downtown Austin Alliance.

Both Howard and Brice say the solution is more affordable housing in Austin. 

Another subject of controversy is the "ARCH" itself.  Some law enforcement and business owners feel downtown right next to the entertainment district is a bad spot for it. Howard says the downtown location is typical -- but the problem is with infrastructure.

"If we were only able to sleep 100 people at the ARCH on any given night, it would be the right size.  That's the size of the population the ARCH was built for.  But we're asking them to sleep 230 people a night and that doesn't work," Howard said.

"The other problem is that it's become a gathering place for people that's created a bad element and a very scary-looking element in the middle of downtown adjacent to our convention and visitors district.  We've got to change that dynamic.  We've got to make ARCH a place that is safe," Brice said. 

Brice says moving the ARCH is unrealistic.  He feels it's time for the whole community to review the contract for services at the city-owned building. 

"That was created in 2004.  Here we are 12 years later and I think it's worth taking a look to say 'is what we set up back in 2004 the right model to serve us today out of that facility?'  And if it's not then how is it best changed?" Brice said.