How Austin Is Tackling Homelessness on the Street and at City Hall

More shelters, more beds, and more fights about ordinances ahead


Philip Mitchell (Photo by John Anderson)

“I’ve been let down by people wanting to help so many times. It’s hardened my heart in some ways.” – Philip Mitchell

When Arlene Page learned the tent she shared with her boyfriend Philip Mitchell had caught fire, her thoughts went to the daycare at St. George's Episcopal Church, across the I-35 frontage road from where the couple has been camped for the past nine months. Page was at an appointment with a medic from Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services' Community Health team when the call came in, and the incident was described to her as an explosion. "We keep propane in the tent to cook our food," Page told the Chronicle the following day, July 18, "so my fear was that someone was hurt, maybe even one of the kids at St. George's."

The previous day, a lit firecracker was thrown at the couple's tent, burning the only shelter they had, as well as the mattress on which they slept. Both were ruined. Mitchell told us he wasn't surprised, as it wasn't the first time the couple had been targeted. A few weeks earlier, someone had thrown at their tent an extinguished flare, on which was written "www.getoffnow.com," sending a not-so-subtle message. Before that, Mitchell and Page were awakened in the middle of the night when something – a pellet or bullet, the couple suspects – was fired through their tent.

"It makes me angry, because we're just out here trying to live," Mitchell told us. "We keep our area tidy and don't bother anyone, so I don't understand why some people want to attack us." The attack came after the July 1 effective date of the city's amended ordinances regulating where people can sit, lie, or camp in public – reversing bans put in place by the City Council in 1995 (camping) and 2005 (no sit/no lie). Now, those behaviors are permitted in public spaces, unless they pose a hazard or obstruction.

Page and Mitchell's encampment under I-35's upper deck, near Airport Boulevard, is neither hazardous nor an obstruction, but they were targeted nonetheless. For the advocates of decriminalizing homelessness who backed the changes approved by Council on June 20, the couple's case raised alarm about the safety of the city's most vulnerable – and encouraged them to continue fighting. One of those advocates, Chris Harris with Just Liberty, told us the "dehumanizing rhetoric" seen on social media since July 1 – including from Gov. Greg Abbott – "very predictably leads to hatred and violence." Harris said the incident provides a rallying cry: "We have to redouble our efforts to get people off the streets and provide a path to housing for everyone experiencing homelessness in our community, as quickly as possible."

The "we" in that statement doesn't just refer to activists. It means elected officials, from Council on up. It means nonprofit organizations that work one-on-one with those experiencing homelessness to help them get the ball rolling toward stability. It means business owners who are frustrated with the effect that people camping in front of their storefronts could have on the bottom line. It means every one of us who may feel compelled to look away out of discomfort when passing someone asking for money on the street.

Still Time to Make Hard Choices

Austin's homeless problem is growing, but it's not yet an unmanageable crisis. The last Point in Time Count conducted on Jan. 26 of this year found 2,255 individuals experiencing homelessness on the streets or in shelters – a 5% increase from the previous year, just below the national average. The city has made some strides – reaching "effective zero" status for veteran homelessness and reducing by half the number of children and youth living on the streets. For Mayor Steve Adler, the vote to allow camping was a first step down a road that will include many hard choices. "I look at Seattle, which has 200,000 fewer people than us, but six times as many homeless, and Los Angeles with almost 40,000 homeless," the mayor told us. "In those cities, I don't even know how you begin to actually address the problem. But we're at a number we can do something about, if we're ready to make hard choices."

Some Council members question the wisdom of allowing camping throughout the city without first designating places where those without homes can camp safely. (On June 20, Council Members Kathie Tovo, Alison Alter, and Ann Kitchen put forth a failed motion to approve the camping changes on first reading only, to give staff time to find those areas. Tovo and Alter ultimately voted against the changes.) But in statements to and interviews with the Chronicle, CMs have consistently agreed with the principle of decriminalizing homelessness and removing the barriers to housing posed by people's prior encounters with the criminal justice system for violating laws they had no choice but to break.


Photo by John Anderson

Council members also acknowledged a pressing need to keep moving forward; also on June 20, Council directed City Manager Spencer Cronk to return in August with next steps for the city to take. Those recommendations could include identifying safe camping sites away from high-traffic pedestrian areas, or safe parking lots where people living in their cars – most often families – could sleep overnight. They could include providing bathrooms and storage lockers to the unsheltered, or expanding strategies such as Public Works' "violet bag" pilot program, which provides trash bags to residents without housing, so they can collect their waste and have it disposed of properly. But most importantly, it means building shelters where people receive the social services they need to move along the continuum that eventually leads to permanently exiting homelessness.

Veronica Briseño, who since March and until July 31 served as the city's interim homeless strategy officer, said all of those options are on the table. Official recommendations are still under development, but Briseño expects city staff to report back to Council "continuously" with new ideas and best practices for sheltering and then housing as many people experiencing homelessness as possible. (Briseño, who's had a long career with the city, will take over the Economic Development Department; the long-term strategy Briseño helped work out is not expected to change much.)

The most immediate need is to grow the city's shelter capacity. Currently, there are about 822 beds in Austin across various nonprofits and faith organizations, but that number is likely to shrink slightly in the near future (see "Counting the Present and Future Beds …"). The Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH) at Seventh and Neches streets Downtown is transforming its operations and reducing its bed count from 165 to about 130. Going forward, the ARCH will no longer be a drop-in shelter; clients will need to be referred from other service providers, and engage in case management aimed at placing them in housing, in order to stay there.

With fewer beds at the ARCH, Front Steps, the nonprofit that runs the city-owned shelter, can bring in more case managers to work with those clients and offer services that are individualized to meet their specific needs. Someone exiting the criminal justice system may need assistance with getting an ID; someone else may need support in battling a crippling addiction; another may need extensive job training to put them into a position where they can bring in a stable income. Someone else may have been laid off and just needs a place to stay for a week or two until they can find work and get back on their feet. "We need our shelters to meet people where they are on the spectrum of homelessness," Briseño said. "If we put people in an environment they are not ready for, they are less likely to be successful."

Front Steps Executive Director Greg McCormack expects the ARCH to be fully transitioned to the new housing-focused model by Oct. 1, but he hopes to make changes as soon as possible. He knows that in its current form, the ARCH is not succeeding, partly due to its original mission and vision when it opened in 2004: a low-barrier shelter that could provide a roof to just about anyone. Now, the environment around the ARCH – the space Austin has effectively set aside for those experiencing homelessness to congregate Downtown – has become toxic for those seeking help, and for the city at large.

In our interviews with people living on the streets throughout the city, the ARCH is seen as a place from which it is actually more difficult to exit homelessness. Some said they wanted to avoid the drug trade that surrounds the ARCH; some said they didn't have faith in the shelter's ability to provide services necessary to achieve a stable, housed life. Michael, who was camped across the street from the ARCH when we spoke, said he had not tried to get into the shelter for months, even though he regularly spent his days and nights nearby. "I was let down by my case worker in there, and I just haven't been motivated to go back," Michael told us. He is skeptical of how effective the planned changes to ARCH operations will be; "I'll see what happens, but I don't have a lot of faith."

Redefining What a Shelter Can Be

The often-dismal scene around the ARCH has defined what many in Austin think a "homeless shelter" must inherently be. That is, a place that is unclean and unsafe, where drugs are sold and used without much consequence, where violence is common – the past two weeks have seen two firearm homicides and the stabbing of a transgender woman, in critical condition at press time, near the ARCH – and where jails and hospitals drop off people they don't know what to do with, often without any warning. That's why Council required operational changes when it agreed to renew the contract with Front Steps on April 1.

McCormack is unsure if the model change will have any impact on the environment outside the ARCH, but he is hopeful it will at least change perceptions of what a shelter can be, among both those experiencing homelessness and those who have never slept rough. He anticipates hiring one or two more case workers, but feels his team is ready for the transition. Right now, Front Steps is identifying the first 150 individuals to be admitted into the "new" ARCH. That list is likely to include 25 of the top "long stayers" at the shelter, as well as those already engaged in case management.


A street scene near the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (Photo by John Anderson)

The biggest disruption at the ARCH will be the end of the lottery, at some point on or before Oct. 1, that gives those not engaging with case workers a chance to be randomly selected to spend a night at the shelter. McCormack acknowledges the transition will be difficult, but necessary to meet the city's goals for moving people through the shelter and into housing. "We know that case management leads to lower levels of homelessness by getting people into housing," McCormack told us. "Helping someone find a job, managing their finances, attending to their health issues can make all the difference. We'll be able to do more of that under our new model."

Meanwhile, a new Salvation Army shelter is preparing to open this fall in East Austin at 4613 Tannehill Lane. The Rathgeber Center (named for Dick and Sara Rathgeber, who donated the land and money for the shelter, the Salvation Army's third in Austin) will serve families with children regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or marital status. The center has two wings, one for emergency shelter and one for families needing a longer stay, and expects to serve 664 individuals annually. Originally, the Salvation Army planned to open the emergency wing first while waiting for the other wing to be completed in August, but city development requirements made that impossible; before either can open, the group needs to close a funding gap of about $4.9 million – the annual cost to operate the shelter. Once the Rathgeber Center is fully operational, the Salvation Army can repurpose the 55 beds currently set aside for families at its Downtown shelter next to the ARCH for use by single adults.

In the future, a shelter in South Austin – to be owned by the city, but run by an outside entity, as is the ARCH – is set to come online. On June 20, the same day it changed the camping and no-sit/no-lie ordinances, Council voted unanimously to pursue a property in CM Ann Kitchen's District 5, at 1112 W. Ben White. Staff is currently negotiating the purchase of that building, at a price of no more than $8.6 million, but before the vote was taken, neighbors of the proposed shelter let loose their frustrations.

Their concerns were familiar: a homeless shelter will make the community less safe, the area surrounding the building will become unsanitary, it will lower their property values, it will create risks for their children. However, despite opponents dubbing the South Austin shelter "ARCH 2.0," it will also be referral-only, with 100% of clients engaging in case work. People not staying at the shelter will not be allowed to gather outside the building.

“We listened to what people were concerned about, [and] agreed to be real clear about what the shelter would be like, and we’d provide a legally enforceable way to ensure that happens.” – Ann Kitchen

Kitchen told us she and her staff have spent time since June 20 clarifying issues with her constituents. As part of that vote, Council directed staff to create an "enforceable legal instrument" laying out what she calls "good neighbor restrictions" that could ensure the shelter is operated as intended. Some of that language could include limiting the shelter to 100 beds, prohibiting all drop-ins and camping at the building, and "measures that secure the property."

Kitchen hopes to bring that document to Council for a vote in August or September. "As a council, we listened to what people were concerned about," she told us. "In response, we agreed to be real clear about what the shelter would be like, and we'd provide a legally enforceable way to ensure that happens." According to Kitchen, her office's conversations with constituents have tamped down the backlash, but viewed through the prism of Twitter, Facebook, and Nextdoor, the city's strategy to reduce homelessness continues to be divisive.

"No One Can Have It Both Ways"

Some of the neighbors Kitchen is trying to win over have created a Facebook group to organize opposition to the new shelter. The group is closed, but screenshots of posts shared by Chris Harris include an unfounded conspiracy theory that the attack on Arlene Page and Philip Mitchell was staged; another questioning the efforts by Sunrise Community Church, about a mile from the site, to offer food, showers, and help navigating various social services; and one implying the neighbors themselves are the real victims. A line from the "About This Group" section illustrates the tension felt by some Austinites who see themselves as progressive as the city changes its approach. "South Austin residents have long been a tolerant and compassionate group, but the recent concentration of homeless along the [Ben White] corridor is unreasonable. Residents fear that the new plan will serve to permanently attract and concentrate the problem."

Neighbors in the Facebook group say “South Austin residents have long been a tolerant and compassionate group, but the recent concentration of homeless along the [Ben White] corridor is unreasonable.”

The group has only 341 members as of press time, but other efforts opposing the city's homelessness strategy are gaining steam. A Change.org petition to rescind the changes to the camping ordinance, begun by Travis County GOP chairman Matt Mackowiak, has gathered more than 19,000 signatures since its launch on July 17. It's unclear how many of those signers actually live in Austin, because Change.org does not allow geolimited participation in its petition – so anyone on the internet could sign. But Mackowiak insisted to the Chronicle that an "overwhelming majority" of the signatures were from the Austin area, although when asked how he could be sure without reviewing every signature, or attempting a statistical analysis, Mackowiak declined to offer more detail. Either way, he plans to submit the petition to Council at its Aug. 8 meeting. It's unlikely to have much effect on a Council that's largely unified on the new rules, but Mackowiak said he was prepared to take "additional steps" if Council declined to act on his petition.

Many in the city's business community also oppose the ordinance changes, but they have been much quieter than GOP politicos seeking to score points by attacking a fraught problem with no easy solutions. The Austin Chamber of Commerce's board chair, Brian Cassidy, told us that local businesses – especially those Downtown – are "frustrated" by the Council's action, and that there's a sense that Downtown employees are at greater risk now. He added that the chamber is beginning to hear about issues from businesses eyeing Austin for relocation. "We are used to hearing about problems with transportation and affordability," Cassidy said, "but we're hearing more now that we have this problem [with homelessness]." But the private sector is willing to step up and help, Cassidy insisted, if the city provides an "actionable plan" to end homelessness that's "worthy of investment."

Any such plan would require much long and hard work, and divisiveness in the community is a threat to meaningful solutions. At a televised forum organized by the Downtown Austin Alliance, panelists sought to remind attendees and home viewers of the humanity at the heart of the debate. "We are dealing with human beings here," Police Chief Brian Manley told the crowd. And Bill Brice, DAA vice president of investor relations, who's long led the organization's efforts around homelessness, pointed to the community contradiction – some people complain about the homeless, saying they don’t feel safe and don’t like seeing the camps, but they also don’t want to have shelters in their neighborhoods. "No one can have it both ways," Brice said. "We have to make hard choices as a community."

At the DAA panel, Manley said it's too early to determine what, if any, impact the changes have had on crime rates. But he noted that even before the ordinances were changed, arrests for the three offenses were on the decline. Judicial records obtained by the Chronicle dating back to 2014 reinforce Manley's point: citations, warrants, and arrests stemming from a person sitting or lying, camping, or aggressively soliciting for money (now described as "confronting" in the amended ordinance) have all decreased substantially.

In 2014, there were 6,120 citations issued (4,734 of which turned into warrants), and 169 arrests made for the three offenses combined. Citations and warrants began to decrease in 2016, while arrests grew until 2018; but by then, all three types of enforcement dropped for all three offenses. As of July 12, the data for 2019 shows 289 citations, 164 warrants, and 23 arrests. It's not clear yet whether this includes any enforcement actions taken after the amended ordinances took effect July 1.

The downward trend is a good sign for getting people on a path to stable housing, as a warrant or arrest can pose a significant barrier. A 2016 study by Austin's Ending Commun­ity Homelessness Coalition found that about 16% of housing providers surveyed used screening processes that could weed out applicants based on "'unclassified offenses' that [are] generally left undefined." The report goes on to say: "Having such an overbroad category enables properties to deny applicants based on a variety of unrelated offenses, and the potential to so classify offenses is virtually unlimited." ECHO Executive Director Ann Howard told us that with those vague screening processes, applicants can "absolutely" be denied a lease in Austin for a warrant or arrest in their criminal history. "We are trying to help people be more competitive," she said. "Any bad thing becomes a barrier, and reducing the number of barriers always helps."

Two weeks after the firecracker incident, as media attention directed at Philip Mitchell and Arlene Page wanes, the couple is coming to grips with the reality that they are still stuck living on the streets. They have enjoyed a week's stay at a motel, courtesy of donations collected in the wake of the incident, and others have offered food and water, but those generosities are also fading. "What we really need is housing," Page told us. Even under the best of circumstances, exiting homelessness can take months; with the numerous challenges that some face – a criminal history, substance abuse, costly health care needs – the wait can be even longer.

Many who have entered the system in some way, by engaging in case management, staying at a shelter, applying for a job training program, or utilizing some other supportive service, have fallen off the path toward stable housing. For them, learning to trust a new vision for that system can be a challenge all its own. That's where Page and Mitchell are now; they want to believe Austin can find solutions for the many like them, who desperately want to permanently exit homelessness, but personal experience has led them to believe that may not be possible.

"I've been let down by people wanting to help so many times," Mitchell told us. "It's hardened my heart in some ways."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Arlene Page, Philip Mitchell, Homelessness, Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services, Austin City Council, Point in Time Count, Steve Adler, Chris Harris, Just Liberty, Greg Abbott, Kathie Tovo, Alison Alter, Ann Kitchen, Spencer Cronk, Public Works, Veronica Briseño, Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, Front Steps, Greg McCormack, Salvation Army shelter

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