Downtown Stopgap: The Public Order Solution

Sheryl Cole
Sheryl Cole

In late September, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo launched what the APD called a "public order initiative." The operation was aimed at reducing Downtown crime in the wake of data that reflected that, while violent crime had been decreasing citywide, it had been rising in neighborhoods Down­town. Numbers were floated that suggested – perhaps misleadingly – that Downtown's homeless population was linked to a disproportionate amount of crime. There was also a statement from Acevedo, delivered the day before the start of the initiative, that suggested homeless services be moved out of the center of the city (see "Latest Homeless Initiative: Bust 'Em?," Oct. 12). There were rumors that the cops were engaged in sweeps, arresting large numbers of homeless people.

In late October, Acevedo testified before the Austin City Council's Health and Human Services Committee, providing a full-throated defense of the Downtown efforts: "We don't target people," he told council members, "based on socioeconomic standing."

Acevedo was not ready to abandon the idea that Downtown is not the best place for homeless social services – such as the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless on Seventh Street – to be headquartered. "It has beer readily available and booze readily available; it's probably not a good mixture," he said. Acevedo waded into an even trickier argument, the conflict between the have-nots and the haves – specifically panhandlers vs. wealthy Downtown residents. Those residents "have an expectation," he told the committee. "If I'm going to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for a condo, I want to be able to go to that corner restaurant or to that cafe" without being harassed.

The September crackdown evoked a variety of responses. Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole said the homelessness question was getting wrongly but "inextricably intertwined" with other issues. "A crime is a crime whether it is committed by a homeless person or not, and that needs to be addressed," she said. "Violence is unacceptable regardless of who commits the crime." But Cole also told the Chronicle that public order initiatives are not an adequate solution to homelessness.

Downtown Austin Alliance's Bill Brice said he considers Downtown safe, but added that "it's hard to keep that area safe ... when people wait in line" to get into the ARCH. He further suggested that the system – fine as its operators might be – is overloaded. "What's going out of the back of the [social services] pipeline," he said, "is a lot less than what's coming in the front."

The ultimate outcome of Acevedo's roundup/public order initiative remains to be seen. Part of that determination may come when the chief reports back to City Council with more precise data about how the homeless are involved in Downtown crime – how much as perpetrators and how much as victims. Council Member Mike Martinez said that while he is not absolutely opposed to moving services out of Downtown, homelessness isn't necessarily bounded along street lines. "If we keep looking at homelessness as a geographical issue, we'll never solve it," he said. "It is a social problem, not a geographical problem."

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