Latest Homeless Initiative: Bust 'Em?

Austin Police Department launches 'public order initiative' Downtown

Members of Austin's homeless community hold a Sunday worship service under the I-35 bridge between Sixth and Seventh streets in 2009.
Members of Austin's homeless community hold a Sunday worship service under the I-35 bridge between Sixth and Seventh streets in 2009. (Photo by John Anderson)

On Sept. 20, partly in response to a couple of recent headline-generating incidents, the Austin Police Department kicked off what it is calling a Public Order Initiative, in theory to reduce violent and property crimes Downtown by targeting public ordinance violations. The initiative, the department says, is going to last several weeks. Beyond that, no one from the department will be saying anything until the end of this month – not what the initiative entails, nor who's been arrested as a result of it – not until Chief Art Acevedo has had a chance to review the data.

Until then, the estimated 4,000 members of the city's homeless population who visit the area's numerous social service providers will just have to trust that the initiative has nothing to do with them and that they're not being targeted by APD – despite reports that the number of homeless people coming through the Downtown Community Court and into Travis County Jail over the last couple of weeks has jumped dramatically.

As it happens, on Wednesday, Sept. 19 – a day before the initiative went into effect – Acevedo told reporters that he'd like to see all homeless services moved from Down­town, for the sake both of the homeless population and of those who live, work, and party Downtown. "Let's put Caritas, let's put the ARCH [Austin Resource Cen­ter for the Homeless], let's put the Salva­tion Army right adjacent to this huge [entertainment] district. It has beer readily available and booze readily available," Acevedo said sarcastically. "It's probably not a good mixture." The next day, the initiative kicked in, which according to House the Homeless President Richard Troxell, is no coincidence. Troxell says APD has been trying to push the homeless out of Downtown for years.

"We see initiatives like this as responses to events like the Pecan Street Festival, ACL, Formula One, and now the development of Waller Creek," Troxell says. "We see this activity before every major event. What's different is, this is the beginning of the drumbeat to drive the homeless from the Downtown area before the Waller Creek river walk comes online. Acevedo made no bones about this. He's a spokesperson for the business community, representing ­moneyed interests."

Despite his stark judgment of the official motivations, Troxell agrees that the Downtown business district is not the best place for homeless services. House the Homeless takes the position that homeless people are too easily distracted by the temptations of the entertainment district to do themselves any lasting good, and that they are "interfering with Downtown businesses' ability to service people their entertainment in an unbridled fashion," Troxell says. "When people ask those people for help because they have resources, over time that wears people thin; that creates a conflict between businessman and Joe the cop and the person experiencing homelessness."

Every day, hundreds of homeless people frequent the Waller Creek area to get to and from homeless services on both sides of I-35. There's Angel House on the Eastside for free lunch, the Palm School for food stamps, Austin Travis County Integral Care for medicine, Barton Middle School for legal aid and rent subsidies, and, of course, ARCH, which provides numerous basic services. They're all in or next to Downtown, which makes the area a magnet for the homeless, and that in turn makes Downtown business people – who look at the area and see a potential gold mine of tourism dollars and new residential units – "apoplectic," says Troxell. Instead of sending out APD to round them up, however, Troxell believes the city needs to convince Downtown businesses to become community partners and help pay to relocate homeless services out of Downtown and onto land of their own in an area with not quite so much growth potential – in short, "rethink everything."

"What this would cost would be chump change compared to the money Waller Creek is going to bring in," Troxell says. "We need to work together in community partnership. Collectively we can have a community response to change the entire paradigm of Downtown and of our ability to serve people who are homeless."

Bill Brice, security and maintenance director with the Downtown Austin Alli­ance, says though his group supports measures that will improve both life in Down­town and the lives of Austin's homeless, it is not actively engaged in efforts to move services out of Downtown, nor would it support Downtown businesses paying for such a move. "We feel if the services need to be moved out, the service providers need to carry that ball. DAA isn't the one who needs to do that," Brice says. "The homeless are part of our community. We support APD to improve Downtown at all times. We are in favor of anything to improve public safety. Downtown needs to be safe for everyone, including the homeless population."

For now, the major players in the discussion – Troxell, DAA, even City Council members – remain largely in the dark as to what APD's newest initiative entails. Council Member Laura Morrison has put the initiative on the agenda for the Oct. 23 Public Health and Human Services Committee meeting. While she waits for a report from the department, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole wants to make sure the city maintains its humanitarian priorities, even as it continues to develop Downtown into a big-money live/work/play space. "We have a dual goal: one is public safety, the other is not to criminalize homelessness," Cole says. "We're trying to move the homeless to self-sufficiency, not just to different locations. The first priority is to reduce the number of homeless individuals. I don't think it's as simple as saying, 'Move this facility, go away, then everything's going to be OK.'"

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homelessness, Downtown, House the Homeless, Austin Police Department, Richard Troxell, Downtown Austin Alliance, Sheryl Cole

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