Red River Clubs Grapple With Downtown Homelessness
Beggars, hustlers, and dealers make you wonder how Downtown music keeps from going under
"What you need?" asks the bent-back man staring at the hands of every night owl. Excuse me? "What you need, man?" The old man repeats himself through clenched teeth, leaning in toward me as I pass to reveal a stalactite of snot dangling from his wet nose.
I'm good, man, I tell him. It's after midnight on a cold Wednesday in early January. Red River Street looms as a gauntlet of lost hope. Two steps farther, a burly fellow seeks an investment partner. "Wanna go halves on a 10 of K2?" he asks. I'll pass. Three more steps and a man in a leather coat asks me for a cigarette. I tell him I don't have one. "Fuck you, you do," he shoots back. A spun-out hippie stands at the street corner wearing a torn blanket over boxers.
"Hey brother," he prods. "Can you spare a dollar?" I offer a pair of old jeans that might fit him.
"Nah, it's cool." He shrugs, exposing to me a half-drunk bottle of Shiner. "Want a drink of this beer?"
Street scenes like this don't often raise my pulse, but I understand how it might freak out normals – people who don't make their living scrounging for music Downtown from club to club. Venue owners and club workers on Red River are growing increasingly worried that the legions of beggars, hustlers, drug dealers, and homeless are creating an unappealing business environment on the walkable music strip. With rental prices in Austin's central business district increasing faster than those citywide, Downtown clubs now need to appeal to wider audiences – a challenging task when the music district overlaps with Austin's centralized consortium of transients.
"It's a recipe for shit," quipped one veteran police source who requested anonymity. "This area being central for both tourists and the homeless makes it conducive to begging, drug dealing, and robbery."
In late November, officers at the Austin Police Department exacerbated the concerns of venue operators when a few were interviewed for a KVUE-TV news segment warning Austin residents against walking alone Downtown at night, citing an increase in violent crime. Weeks later, Beerland's Max Meehan still took issue with the edict. "Thanks for the PR, fuck faces!" he said.
Life in the Sewer
Have you ever cleaned up human shit?
"I did it every day when we moved in," said Jason McNeely, co-owner of Barracuda, a popular venue on Seventh Street. "People still shit by the back door all the time. I can't tell you how many times I've cleaned up shit and condoms at the same time – condoms that are sitting on piles of human shit! It's un-fuckin'-real. Red River is a sewer."
McNeely holds a stake in Eastside punk club Hotel Vegas, and has lived in some tough neighborhoods in both Philadelphia and New York City. He said running a business on Red River (Barracuda opened December 2015) has been the most frustrating environment he's ever encountered. "I've never seen as much piss, shit, prostitution, and open drug use as I do on Red River right now," he said.
It's the same for other venue operators in the area. Meehan, now a talent booker, has worked at Beerland since 2003. "I've had people pull knives on me, pull guns on me, routinely seen sexual favors happening in the alleyway." he said. "If you go down there during the day, you'll see people who do drugs, blast music, and hang out in the alleyway between Beerland and Sidewinder. If you look at some of the men, they're fuckin' ripped. And there's no weight set at the ARCH. These are people who've just gotten out of prison and they're angry and it can be terrifying for people, so it deters foot traffic."
One cop who spoke with the Chronicle affirmed Meehan's suggestion that a considerable portion of the Downtown transient population are career criminals who've been paroled to Austin and dropped out of transitional housing. An open records request filed with Texas' Department of Criminal Justice indicates that 586 state prisoners were paroled to Austin in 2016. Of that number, 150 had not previously lived in the Austin area, and 29 hadn't provided any home address during their incarceration.
The same alley Meehan references also touches the back door of the Empire Control Room & Garage, another live music staple. "The stuff that happens back there would make your skin crawl," said Stephen Sternschein, Empire's owner, who's also president of the Red River Merchants Association. "There's no cameras down there .... It's an incredibly great place if you're a drug dealer or user to get high and engage in whatever illicit things you want to do to be out of the eyes of the police or community."
Sternschein said he's asked the city, which owns the alley, to clean it up, offer protection, or put up a fence, but he said city officials have refused because the path is considered an emergency exit for surrounding businesses. Practically speaking, it's more often used as an emergency toilet.
"There's human fecal matter that trickles into my club through the back door that I have to clean up every day," said Sternschein. "We've gotten tickets because there were people high on drugs sleeping in front of our emergency exit doors. There are places all over this area that are overrun with transients."
Across the street and two blocks north, Maggie Lea, a partner at Cheer Up Charlies, reports recently being verbally harassed – racially and sexually – by a homeless man on Red River. Lea's already slapped a restraining order on one guy who jumped out in front of her car as if he was being hit, then used the near-collision as a pretense to extort her for money and torment her staff.
From Sixth Street to 10th Street, every club owner in the area offers essentially the same sentiment. Here's Sternschein: "This isn't a homeless issue. There's a group of people who need help and receive help. Then there's a group of people who prey on those folks. This issue is those predators: the professional transients that have become so brazen. And the police seem like they've given up.
"There's nothing more unifying than the experience everyone down here has ... cleaning up the piss and shit of transient people that gets left on our doorsteps every day and every night. Our female staff can't walk to their cars by themselves at 3am. Even if you come down during the day, there's aggressive panhandling. Being part of the Red River Cultural District means spending an obligatory 10 minutes at the beginning of any conversation sharing the most recent horrible experience that's been had with somebody who's high on drugs, selling drugs, or doing something completely undesirable."
McNeely said that the scene has had an adverse effect on business within the district. "My clientele doesn't want to hang out on the street because it's not safe," he said. "Ultimately, I don't think we'll be able to survive if the streets stay like this."
We Could Thrive
In October 2013, after a widely circulated petition and campaign from the nonprofit Austin Music People, City Hall consented to officially recognize the stretch of Red River Street between Sixth Street and 12th Street as an official cultural district. The street became a hotbed of underground music in the Nineties, and by the time Council's decree came around it had become one of the densest strips of live music clubs in the entire country. But while that was happening, rooms like 710 and Headhunters had closed, and venues up and down the street were suffering staggering rent increases that eventually displaced stalwarts like Holy Mountain and Red 7.
Today, the cultural district stands as the most important entertainment stretch in Austin, but losing venue density remains a concern for local stakeholders. Most of the clubs are doing decent business and can remain marginally sustainable through die-hard music fans, but engaging Austin's growing population could prove the difference between renewing or folding when current leases expire.
"Take a neighborhood like Rainey Street," McNeely said. "Look at how they're thriving. You see all these other neighborhoods thriving too, like West Sixth and Cesar Chavez, where you don't have that crime and harassment on the street. Austin is one of the biggest draws for tourism in the nation and the music nightlife culture is a big part of that draw, but there isn't any practical application coming to our aid.
"What musicians need, for starters, is venues to play in. More than that, they need venues that have resources needed to give them an appropriate platform ... to perform at their best. Austin has that, but the margin for profit for venues is so much smaller, and costs are so much higher. The Red River venues aren't asking for handouts, we're just asking for the city to help create a safe environment."
Sternschein sees potential in the RRCD becoming a high-value tourist corridor, but doubted that would happen if the city can't find a way to deal with transient populations and safety issues in the district. "People will only come to Red River from 9pm until 2am, and it's outside of those hours that's the problem," he said. "If we're ever going to make something work with rising rents, we need to be able to operate outside those hours. The first step in that is cleaning up the streets."
Club owners believe that Austin's increasing Downtown density could translate into successful happy hour business, but as of now, few venues are able to draw any kind of afternoon audience. "It's not comfortable!" bemoaned McNeely. "You can't walk down Red River without being confronted in some negative way."
Meanwhile, any notion that the throngs of transients on Red River are staving off affordability issues and incoming development remains pure fallacy. A combination Hotel Indigo/Holiday Inn Express opened on Red River in 2016 across from Stubb's. Hyatt House is currently going up behind Cheer Up Charlies. Venue leases don't get renewed without a sizable increase in rent.
"Here's the backroom conversation that we used to have around here," revealed Sternschein. "By having these issues we're preserving our ability to have this cultural experience in the district, because if the ARCH or Caritas weren't here the hotels and condo people would have already gobbled it up. So in a twisted way, the problems that we're having have saved the district. But that mindset has proven untrue by the two hotels that have just gone up in the district, and rent is higher than ever."
Zombies on Spice
Referring to K2 as "synthetic marijuana" is an affront to cannabis plants everywhere. The latter doesn't render you drooling, incoherent, and mentally vacant like the chemical compound known as "spice." Those who work and play Downtown routinely spot hordes of spiced-out zombies – gone-in-the-eyes and swaying after a blunt. Last summer, a semi-homeless crack-cocaine addict with a long history Downtown told me the drug's grown so popular because "it's cheap, easy to get, and doesn't get you arrested." In actuality, synthetic cannabinoids have been illegal in Texas since September 2015, and possession ranges from a misdemeanor to a felony depending on the quantity on one's person. Chances are the guy was referring to police enforcement.
Medics are all too familiar with K2. On a single day in August, Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services treated 52 people who'd lost consciousness from a bad batch of spice – the largest, but hardly only incident of mass K2 overdosing over the last year. All told in 2016, ATCEMS treated 1,611 K2 overdoses.
"K2 is a despicable, nasty drug," said Troy Gay, an assistant chief at APD. "People are putting products in it that you and I spray on plants ... to kill [the plants]. And because of its cheapness and the effect it gives people, it targets those who are homeless. We have people – vultures – who come down to this area and prey on our most vulnerable – the homeless – and sell them K2. Those are the people we want to arrest."
Gay said if a person is high on K2 but doesn't have the drug on them, the only thing police can do is charge them with public intoxication if they are deemed a threat to themselves or others. APD targets K2 dealers. Putting homeless in jail for efforts to mentally escape homelessness is far from a departmental crusade. Gay said such an effort "isn't the best answer for homeless people with addiction and mental issues."
APD has had some success lately with K2 trafficking. "A few months back we arrested 45 people for K2 delivery, and we did another 30 recently," Gay said. The department often disguises officers as homeless people, he said, to make undercover purchases from spice dealers. "It's hard," Gay said. "We have to get the drugs tested, processed, then we get the warrants and go out and arrest them."
Despite those arrests, McNeely still reports seeing both spice and crack get sold every afternoon around the corner from his business. He described a scene of three young males set up by the large tree between Waller Creek and Koriente, with 10 to 20 homeless people huddled around them, looking to score. "They all line up and they divvy up the drugs – this is every day," he said. "And any day, anytime, you can see people passing out from synthetic drugs on the street near our businesses. In my opinion, the reason it's so prevalent in that area is that it's so easy for them. There's no one there to make it not convenient."
Gay said a solution may be found in increased collaborations between citizens and police. "We need people who are willing to say no, call the police, and identify those folks," he said. "We need people who will say, 'These people are not here for services. They're down here preying on people who need help.'"
A Haven for Hope?
The epicenter of Austin's transient population is a two-block stretch between Seventh Street, Eighth Street, Trinity Street, and Red River. That's where all the services are. Those needing sustenance can eat breakfast and lunch at Caritas and the Trinity Center, and dinner at the Salvation Army. In the middle sits the most well known of homeless service providers: the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH), a landmark made all the more recognizable by the dozens of impoverished people who post up along its outside walls each day.
When I visited the ARCH in late December, I found a positive environment operating under progressive leadership. The 500 people who utilize the ARCH each day receive a basic supply of needs: food, water, bathrooms, and showers. There's the lobby, a safe, judgment-free place to chill out during daytime hours; charging stations for electronics; a computer lab for job hunting; mental health services and addiction groups; lockers so you don't have to drag your pack to an interview; and daytime sleeping quarters complete with white noise machines. At night, the facility, which houses nine nonprofits (most notably Front Steps) turns into a men's emergency shelter built to house 100 – but it's augmented with bedrolls on the floor to sleep 230. ARCH organizers say the facility turns away 30 to 40 people each night. Often, a partnering church will house a few of them.
Such accommodations raise the question of why one will always find so many homeless people outside the ARCH. According to Front Steps Executive Director Mitchell Gibbs, who cited multiple censuses of the homeless population, 75% of those outside individuals do not use the ARCH's services whatsoever. They're a complex demographic, likely comprised of individualistic homeless campers, victims of Texas' underfunded mental health system, career criminals, and people with addiction issues. The ARCH, which operates on federal and state funding, employs five private security guards during daytime hours, but holds no authority over those camped outside on the street. "Our legal authority ends when people leave the building," said Gibbs. "We don't have control over what happens outside. APD does."
Gibbs suggested that APD could help the ARCH by better taking care of the criminal activity. "We need the same level of response to that activity that we would receive anywhere else," he said. "It's difficult to be homeless and not in some way participating in a criminal activity just by virtue of being homeless – where can you sit, lie down, go to the bathroom. But beyond that, if you're using, selling, or distributing illegal drugs, if you are participating in prostitution, there are penalties that we as citizens expect to be enforced."
Gibbs framed the department's involvement with the ARCH as a gradual decline since its opening. "When the ARCH was built in , there was a police substation included in the planning, and officers stationed in the building," he said. "That changed to park rangers. Then, when there were budget cuts at APD, they removed the police substation with continued promise that there will be a vehicle parked outside the building to prevent crime. Then they needed that vehicle, so it became a promise of increased patrols in our area ...."
APD runs a HALO camera outside the ARCH so police can monitor activity from nearby headquarters. There's also a city-employed security guard outside the shelter throughout the day. Still, while local homeless rates were declining from 2011 to 2015, Gibbs saw the population outside the ARCH continue to grow.
"With gentrification and the expansion of housing density, these things that are changes around us, people who may have been campers before have been forced out of the campsite," he explains. "Where are they going to go? Where are they going to be allowed to be? People may not be pleased with it, but our community has allowed those people to come Downtown. Even if they're not seeking services here. There's a homemade tent camping thing across the street, on the LAZ Parking area. Police know it's there. It's been there for a couple weeks now. That would not be allowed to happen in West Lake."
The three most used words in any conversation about homelessness Downtown are "move," "the," and "ARCH." That form of NIMBYism's gone on since before the shelter opened.
"No neighborhood wanted it, but having Salvation, Caritas, and Trinity in the area made good sense, and the city was able to secure this property," said Gibbs. "That conversation has happened repeatedly over time. 'Let's move it.' So you going to pluck one service element out of the middle of other service elements? Now people who need shelter would have to travel to that? That's assuming that you could find a neighborhood that would take it, particularly now with a 10-1 Council environment."
Seeking a solution, Gibbs points south, to San Antonio. In 2010, a 37-acre campus called Haven for Hope opened west of downtown there – effectively moving all of the city's homeless services into one place, away from the center city. It's had such a marked early effect that more than 200 representatives from other cities have visited seeking to replicate it. Gibbs said San Antonio's public-private venture was devised and partially financed by former Valero CEO Bill Greehey. Such a solution would require significant land, money, and community agreement.
The Sound of the Police
On a sunny afternoon in December, Gay stood at the corner of Seventh and Red River assessing the difficult convergence of transients and nightlife. "Homelessness is not a crime," he said. "We don't enforce status-related issues. So our job is to protect the homeless that are here and weed out those who are taking advantage of them with criminal behaviors."
I asked if that proves a difficult distinction. "Yes," Gay said. "That's why we look at criminal actions, not the way people look or the way they walk."
Gay said that a lot of crime is focused around a 1,000-foot radius of the Seventh and Red River corner, especially during late hours. He noted a 10% increase in violent crime in 2016, a figure that's reflected citywide, with aggravated assaults and robberies "the focused crimes in this area."
"We also have aggressive panhandling," he said. "Those are the things we're really trying to focus our efforts on." He cited officer presence as the biggest impact on "deterring those crimes from occurring."
Red River stakeholders are less than enthusiastic about APD's presence in the area. Meehan, who recently stopped working on-site, notes how often he'd see "dudes lighting up crack pipes in front of Sidewinder" while a cop cruises by in his squad car. "How does this guy ... not see that?" he asked. "And how does he not stop? And how does he not deal with it?"
Meehan believes police inaction is due to the department's decision to deliberately overlook crimes perpetrated by those who can't pay their citations. "Art Acevedo brought a very clinical approach to generating income for the city," he charged. "If there's a rich, white dude wearing a [University of Oklahoma] sweater with a beer in his hand, and across the street there's some homeless guy with a can of Steel Reserve ranting and screaming sexual insults at women as they walk by, who do you think the police are going to pop? The guy in the sweater, because he can pay! Meanwhile the guy who's making women nervous gets ignored because he doesn't generate income. It's a priority issue with the police. They only go after what is lucrative."
Pressed, Gay said that he understands Meehan's perception, but rebuked it as untrue. "People believe we don't do anything with the homeless. Believe it or not, the only option isn't taking them to jail," he said. "We try to de-escalate situations. We try to ensure if somebody has too much to drink maybe there's someone who can take them home and take care of them. Or, as a last resort, sometimes we have to make an arrest. You have to look at the totality of everything. It isn't based on whether they're homeless or if they're in from out of town. It's based on what's going on at that particular moment and if that action is going to stop if we leave."
Meehan believes the most effective way to improve Red River's environment is to have a consistent presence of police doing walking patrols. Downtown cops focus on Sixth Street, especially during nights and weekends (see "Sixth Street Showdown," Feb. 26, 2016). Sternschein also notes a need for an on-foot police presence along Red River. He acknowledges that he sees two beat cops more often, though the stretch is simply one of many on their 10-hour shift.
Gay, too, recognizes an increased need for police presence. "Officer presence is the number one way we can deter crime," he said. "We already have some [patrol officers working Red River], but we need to be smarter about it and have them there at the right time." Over the past two years, APD has added 20 officers to its Downtown Area Command staff. "Our goal is to take the limited resources we have and put them in this area on a more constant basis to address challenges going on."
But Meehan's not buying it. "They'll say there's a lack of police resources, and meanwhile you're going to find all the cops on Dirty Sixth flirting with drunk girls," he said.
Asked if the many officers stationed on Sixth Street factors into how many officers are made available for Red River, Gay said: "It does, but we're looking at different deployment strategies.
"Everyone focuses their efforts on Sixth Street because that's where there are fights and class C misdemeanors when bars are closing, but we're having people getting robbed and aggravated assaults – felony offenses – over here."
APD has shown a propensity for showing up at less-than-coincidental times to clear the Red River area of drug dealers and loiterers. In November, before the Waller Creek Conservancy's annual "Creek Show," McNeely recorded video footage of the sidewalk outside the ARCH completely devoid of loiterers. Sternschein called Red River "a different district for that week, and all it was was a consistent presence in the area."
Gay told the Chronicle that he didn't specifically recall any departmental plan to clean up the street for the Conservancy event. "On occasion we have to clean the sidewalks, but on a constant basis we're always trying to address things with creative solutions," he said. "But I'll go back to this point: We don't want to penalize people here to seek services, so we have to come up with a balanced approach about protecting people who are here legally – homeless or not – while pulling the criminal element out of the haystack. If we simply pushed all these homeless people out, where would they go? The neighborhood to the east? The neighborhood to the west? North? South? We'd just have to deal with other areas."
Sternschein said Empire employees called the police 300 different times in a recent one-month span. "When we see things we do call," he said. "When we see officers on the street, we let them know what's going on." He said APD was usually quick to respond to potentially life-threatening situations, like when someone was stumbling around "high on something" with a loaded gun. But when the complaint is just about someone aggressively panhandling, he finds it hard to get good help. "The Red River Merchants Association has gone to town hall meetings with APD and called 311 and 911 when appropriate. I don't want to say we're not getting anywhere, but we're not where we need to be by a long shot."
To Meehan, there's no working relationship between the police and club employees on Red River. "They don't care about the businesses, which shows you they don't care about people paying really high alcohol taxes and rent, because it's not cheap to run a business down there," he said. "I don't understand the mentality. When you get off the airplane in Austin, what do you see? A plaque that says 'Welcome to the Live Music Capital of the World!' And there's absolutely no perspective there."
Gay said sustainable, long-term solutions for the Downtown area will require cooperation between the police and businesses in the district. "There could be better communication," he said. He encouraged businesses: "Don't give up."
"I know they've been down here for a while and thrown their hands up," he said. "Try to work with us. Try to come up with solutions. We're not going away, and we're going to make this the best Downtown we can. But we can't do it without people walking side by side with us."