Safety First

Broken-Window Theory

A key element in the program is enforcement of stricter penalties for Class C misdemeanors, such as panhandling, public intoxication, and public camping. Currently such offenses carry a fine of up to $500 or jail time. The city is crafting an ordinance that would establish a community court within the Austin Municipal Court to deal with repeat Class C offenders, modeled after similar projects in Baltimore, Atlanta, and New York City. Under the proposed system, persons who commit four or more alcohol or drug-related offenses will have the option of receiving treatment or community service to reduce time in jail. If they refuse and continue to break the law, penalties will become more severe.

In order to help the APD in its Class C crackdown, three new members will also be added to the Downtown Ranger Program, founded in 1995. The APD-trained Rangers aren't police officers; they don't carry weapons or have the power to arrest or issue citations. Though they wear uniforms and carry police radios, the Rangers have no real enforcement power, but their presence is a crime deterrent. The Rangers' $300,000 annual budget is funded by the Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA), an association of downtown property owners. The DAA's $1 million budget is largely funded by a property improvement district tax, with the remainder coming through city and county funds and donations.

Not surprisingly, the DAA is one of Safe at Any Time's biggest boosters. Members have been meeting with the APD for months, drafting guidelines and offering feedback. DAA executive director Charles Betts is a firm believer in the "broken-window theory" of crime prevention, which says that beefed-up police presence and stricter penalties for nuisance crimes are the most effective ways to curb more serious crime. "If you enforce stricter penalties on less severe misdemeanors," says Betts, "it tends to have positive impact on the more severe crimes. It sends a clear signal that the community will not tolerate crime."

But advocates for the homeless say the broken-window theory is often used as an excuse to sweep the homeless and other undesirables from public view without providing them any real assistance. Richard Troxell, director of House the Homeless, says Safe at Any Time is just another example of criminalizing the homeless, treatingpanhandling and sleeping in public as if they were serious crimes. Troxell says that while downtown business owners blame the homeless for the rise in Class C crimes, it is university students and other downtown bar patrons who make up a large percentage of alcohol-related arrests. "We are not the number one perpetrators of DWIs and public intoxication, so therefore, we can't help but think this is an all-out attack on homeless citizens," he says.

The Safe at Any Time program comes about a year after the release of the mayor's Initiative on the Homeless, a comprehensive plan outlining steps the city must take to address homelessness.While the initiative has been lauded by some for attempting to address the long-neglected homeless population, it also has its critics. Some have faulted the $12.3 million initiative for its lack of rehabilitation services. The plan currently includes only a little over $400,000 for new detox facilities, which will have to be contracted through existing service providers. In an effort to supplement that assistance, Troxell has worked with State Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Ft. Worth, to sponsor a bill that would allow municipalities to create a new tax on alcohol sales, which would help fund substance abuse treatment programs. Under the proposed legislation, cities would determine the additional tax according to need (see "On the Lege," p. 28).

But the initiative's most controversial recommendation remains the plan for a new homeless resource facility to be built behind the Salvation Army, located on East Seventh Street. The facility will cater primarily to homeless men and offer additional beds, a clinic, treatment referrals, and job placement programs.

Mixed Reviews

The DAA and the East Sixth Street Community Association (ESSCA), whose membership consists of Sixth Street merchants, have been leery of additional resources being placed in their backyards. Business owners are calling the shelter shortsighted and ill-planned, especially since the city is trying to increase tourism in the area with projects like the Waller Creek River Walk and the expansion of the Austin Convention Center. Also in the works is the plan for Computer Sciences Corp. to construct its multimillion dollar corporate campus downtown on three city-owned blocks between Colorado and San Antonio streets.

Some say it is inevitable that a facility catering to homeless men will draw more aggressive panhandlers to the neighborhood, make people afraid of venturing downtown at night, and eventually lower the property values of their businesses. Desirae Pierce, owner of American Pie Designs located at the corner of East Eighth Street and Red River -- just behind the Salvation Army -- says she has to call police every week because of homeless men crowding around her business, harassing clients. She's angry that the city has approved the new men's shelter and thinks it will be counterproductive to any efforts to bring more tourists downtown.

"The city is building up downtown as a tourist attraction and a homeless magnet at the same time," she said. "It's gotten worse and it's only going to get worse."

But Lee Wallace, owner of Jumbo Bagel at 307 W. Fifth Street, does not share Pierce's fears. He says over the past two years he hasn't had a problem with homeless people loitering or panhandling near his store. Although someone did recently drive by and shoot out his storefront window, he doesn't consider his downtown location a problem. Wallace says bars and restaurants in the neighborhood keep the area well-populated and he believes homeless people tend to shy away from the crowds. "I'm not saying I've never had them around here, but I'm not under siege," says Wallace.

APD's Gross, meanwhile, says he's staying out of downtown politics. "We're not trying to run the homeless out of downtown," said Gross. "But if they're out there committing public nuisance crimes, we'll take action. All their resources are downtown; kicking them out wouldn't make sense. I feel the department is kind of in the middle of all this," he added. "There's a good cross section of this city in that area. You have your frats, business owners, partiers, homeless people, big business, and the poorest of the poor. It's a mosaic of humanity. Whatever we do, there's going to be somebody who isn't pleased."

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