Watson's Way

Mayor's Homeless Package Leaves Some People Cold

illustration by Doug Potter

The area of town that the Salvation Army is in has degenerated terribly since the Salvation Army has been there. That's not a question, everybody will agree to that. Now you are going to finish off that part of town," a frustrated Ms. Saxon Fox scolded council last Thursday when it announced a package of resolutions to expand the 13-year-old Salvation Army homeless facility at Eighth Street and Red River - and, the council hopes, also provide a safety net of economic and policing measures to prevent the area from continuing decline. But East Sixth Street property owners like Fox weren't sold on the council's promise that the expanded facility will improve their area by shuttling homeless people away from downtown streets. Tale after harrowing tale of run-ins with homeless people downtown may have been a predictable outcry from surrounding businesses, but business owners were not the only voices of dissent in the chambers. The problem was that, despite a steady stream of accounts proving the need to do something about homelessness downtown, there was very little agreement about just what that something should be. It's a good thing, then, that we've got Mayor Kirk Watson on the job, because he clearly is not afraid to step into such a healthy debate and clear the boards, not only telling everyone what the solutions should be, but defending his conclusions to the death. To be fair, the mayor is backed up by Assistant City Manager Marcia Conner and stacks of studies such as R/UDAT. But if the disagreement among the general populace over the resolutions was reflected in the minds of the council, it certainly wasn't showing on Thursday as Watson stood up to individually, and at great length, debate each business owner on their objections to the homeless resolutions. There is no doubt that this package is Watson's baby.

The primary point of contention for the property owners is the proposed construction of a $3.5 million building at Seventh and Trinity, in the parking lot immediately south of the current Salvation Army. As proposed, the facility would provide an additional 250 beds to house single homeless men, in addition to the Sally's 200 beds next door. The site, purchased by real estate mogul and Salvation Army boardmember Dick Rathgeber, would be leased to the city for $1 a year, with the Salvation Army contracted to manage the facility. The deal is contingent upon a lengthy process to find funding and approval, and even if it flew through all the necessary procedures, it could not realistically be built for another three to four years. One big first step would be the passage of an already well-publicized plan to fund a shelter for homeless women and children in the existing SafePlace location, in the September bond election. If the plan is approved by voters, it would free up 130 beds at Sally which are currently used for women and children, and make it more plausible to turn the entire area into a magnet for chronically homeless, and often drug- and alcohol-addicted, men.

Understandably, East Sixth Street business owners are not excited about the prospect of attracting more homeless men to an area which has been in continuing decline for the past decade - a decline they attribute to the Salvation Army's presence. Watson as apologist believes that the facility will actually clear the streets, giving real muscle to the city's vilified ban on camping in public places by providing an actual alternative place where the homeless can sleep. Many suspect, however, that homeless men will treat the new facility as an arm of the Sally. That is, instead of entering the gates where strict rules are laid down, they'll avoid the rules by simply congregating on the street, while taking advantage of free meals and other social services in the area.

Not surprisingly, the political power struggles have already begun over this phantom facility. The Salvation Army wants to run it its way, with a strict rein on the rules, but the city insists that it will be the one wielding the power. Homeless advocate Richard Troxell helped craft a "coordinating council" made up of social service providers and homeless people to make and enforce the rules, only to have Watson create an "oversight committee" to which the coordinating council will have to answer and on which he placed himself, business interests, and one homeless individual.

Normally, all this political infighting would be somewhat amusing to the jaded observer, but the genuine problems downtown are no laughing matter. Of course, Watson thinks he has an answer for those problems, too, in the form of four resolutions to shore up public safety and the social service safety net. Actually, most of them are just plans to analyze the possibility of beefing up the safety net, but whatever. It's the thought that counts, right?

A long overdue resolution to increase police coverage in the area was piggybacked with plans to create a community court which would allow sentencing for Class C misdemeanors (such as sleeping in public or trespassing in a park at night) to move away from fines and toward mandatory participation in social services such as detoxification. Add to that the council's intent to lobby the state legislature to amend the Class C category with a three strikes provision allowing an upgrade to Class B, and you've got some pretty serious law and order concepts floating around council these days. The council also wants to evaluate a plan to recommend doing something about the day labor site on Cesar Chavez. Don't hold your breath waiting on that one. But the fourth resolution was perhaps the most significant: a plan to look at zoning overlays in the area near the facility to explore the possibility of restricting alcohol sales, providing economic incentives for non-alcohol-related businesses, and looking at the possibility of restricting the influx of more social service agencies into the area. Such zoning changes might also allow the construction of single-room only (SRO) housing downtown.

Too Close for Comfort

Not that any of those promises were very popular with the angry East Sixth Community Association (ESCA). "I don't think one block off of Austin's largest tourist attraction is a great place for that shelter," said David Goren, echoing the concerns of his neighbors. ESCA is additionally angry because it felt slighted by Watson's refusal to grant the issue a public hearing or even a time certain on the council agenda. Although the item regarding the shelter was originally placed on the consent agenda, it had to be pulled when so many property owners showed up to speak against the item. Still, council says it has heard enough debate. "All we have done is talked and argued and asked for public hearings and we've had so many of them I'm tired of them, to be quite frank with you," said an exasperated Councilmember Gus Garcia in support of the mayor.

Nevertheless, the property owners pressed on with their protests, arguing that, after 130 beds are freed up when homeless families move to the SafePlace site, there may not be a need to build a new facility. That argument didn't hold water with Watson, who personally volleyed each contention. "If the debate is just `I don't want it near me, instead I want it near ye,' well, that debate has happened," he countered at one point.

Watson was much emboldened by the supposed support of the Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA) whose executive director, Charles Betts, came bearing a DAA resolution in support of the council. But the DAA resolution deliberately fell short of endorsing the plan for the shelter, instead backing only the law-and-order sister resolutions. In fact, DAA support came as a result of an internal compromise offered by Travis County representative to the DAA, County Commissioner Karen Sonleitner. While support for the proposals was led by Watson, who sits on the DAA, Sonleitner says that DAA discussion was "dominated by what you could clearly call the `hell no's.' That is, hell no to everything." But since it fell short of endorsing the facility itself, the resolution won a nearly unanimous vote of support at the DAA.

ESCA members feel slighted by the DAA's lack of support for their position as downtown property owners, but Betts argues that DAA's acquiescence was simply unavoidable. "I'm convinced that every member of the council is convinced that there's nowhere else that [the homeless facility] can possibly go. I'll admit I've got my rose-colored glasses on, but we have to make reasonable efforts to move all these initiatives to fruition. I didn't count four votes [on council] for not having it there [at Seventh and Trinity]. We'll certainly admit it would be nice not to have any homeless in downtown Austin, but that's not dealing with reality," Betts concludes.

Meanwhile, the person one might expect to be most squarely behind Watson, House the Homeless' Troxell, remains critical of the plan. Not only would he like to see the drug- and alcohol-addicted men separated from those who are simply down on their luck, but he is also wary of the law-and-order component of the plan. Troxell does not want to see the community court plan go into effect without adequate detoxification facilities on hand to use as sentencing options. Without enough detox beds, and the option for fines eliminated, Troxell says, intoxicated individuals would simply be locked in jail. (ESCA and the DAA, on the other hand, would like to see the law-and-order components implemented immediately, since there is the slim chance that such measures might preempt the need for building the facility itself.) And, along with ESCA and many others including Councilmember Jackie Goodman, Troxell argues the futility of housing addicted individuals next door to the largest concentration of bars in the city.

But do Troxell and ESCA really have anything to fear from these resolutions? After all, none of the necessary $12.3 million in funding is in place to build the facility and implement the other resolutions. In addition, the facility's construction is contingent on voter approval of the SafePlace bond in September, which bears the unfortunate and unpopular stigma of aiding the homeless. Moreover, the Salvation Army has all its own bureaucracy to wend through. The proposed facility has to meet approval up a chain of command to the national offices in Atlanta, and given that the city would like to run the complex its own way, that approval is hardly a foregone conclusion.

So why, one might ask, were the resolutions on Thursday's agenda in the first place? Why not wait until there was something to talk about instead of directing the city manager to evaluate possibly creating plans to help the homeless. Goodman defends the resolution package as a "psychological impetus" for the homeless plan, but as likely as not, it's merely another symptom of Watson's need for speed when it comes to making policy. By rushing these items onto the agenda, Watson can push competing ideas to the side, arguing for the validity of his own concept against all comers.

In fact, though, there are a few other ideas floating around. Many in ESCA called for moving the facility to the vacated Mueller Airport site when the airport moves next May. Councilmember Bill Spelman would like to consider creating 10- to 20-bed homeless facilities in neighborhoods all over town to which social services could be delivered on an itinerant basis. Bob Woody, president of ESCA and owner of the Ritz Lounge and Old Pecan Street Cafe, says he could arrange the purchase of the Seventh and Trinity property from Salvation Army at the drop of a hat. But as ESCA member Goren pointed out, alternative plans aren't likely to play with the mayor once he's got his mind made up. "Everything that you've said is always one step ahead of everyone else's comment," Goren said accusingly to Watson. "You've already got the plan worked out in your head."

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