‘No easy answers’ to Ben White/Manchaca homeless concerns

Manchaca and Ben White homeless concerns (KXAN photo)
Manchaca and Ben White homeless concerns (KXAN photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Following more than a year of calls to city leaders for help, Wednesday night, neighbors in South Austin came together to meet with Council Member Ann Kitchen, police and service agencies. It was all to address continued concerns stemming from the homeless population in the Ben White/Manchaca area.

The meeting was standing room only, packed with neighbors giving ideas on what the city should do to address a growing homeless population they say feels like it is second in size only to downtown. Neighbors first met to discuss concerns in December 2015.

The Austin Police Department said the area has actually seen a decrease in violent crimes but there’s been an increase in public disorder and criminal trespass cases and a “pretty significant increase” in calls for service.

All parties acknowledge the problem, but admit it’s one with no easy answers, calling it a balance between public safety and the need to connect people in need with appropriate services.

“We know that there are more problems in the area and so we wanted to come back and focus on solutions,” Kitchen said.

KXAN first spoke with Maria Solis, who lives in the area, two months ago. She pointed out the problem spots and said she was relieved to have a meeting she had been pushing for with stakeholders. Namely, her council representative and APD.

“We’ve had no assistance to turn this around,” she said. “We can’t walk the neighborhood anymore because it’s gotten so rampant.”

Solis acknowledged homeless individuals are in need of services, but said she’s not convinced everyone wants help. Kitchen said there is a multitude of reasons why people end up homeless. Because of that, there’s not a one-size-fits-all answer.

What she does know is that “People are coming to this area from other parts of town, seeking services. We really need to look at our system.”

A system of resources that, right now, is largely concentrated downtown.

“One of the realities is that in these outlying areas, there’s little to no support for getting people into housing,” Mark Hilbelink, lead pastor of Sunrise Community Church said. “Everything is focused downtown. And so the amount of people that are living on the perimeter of Austin outside of the bounds of downtown are basically an un-served population.”

Some neighbors, including Solis, blame Sunrise Community Church for drawing the homeless population to the area. The church made helping the homeless part of its mission a year and a half ago.

“It’s everywhere you look now. Where it used to be just here, just there, now it’s wherever you look up and down Ben White,” she said.

Hilbelink says homelessness is growing in the city regardless and said they’ve actually helped get 56 people into housing so far.

“We basically had to decide whether we were going to ignore it – we had been and many others do – or if we were going to try and do something to address it,” he said. “We have become a bridge to help people who are experiencing homelessness find their way to permanent, supportive housing solutions through Travis County partners.”

The church says it’s also provided medical and psychological help, medication and rehab through partnering organizations.

“This is not a Sunrise problem,” Kitchen said. “It’s much more complicated than that.”

After APD, the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) and transportation leaders gave neighbors a snapshot of what was happening in the area, trends they’re seeing and work being done, everyone broke off into work groups to then present ideas about how to tackle challenges the area is facing.

Ideas ranged from increased lighting to creating job opportunities for the homeless population, increased patrolling and considering loitering ordinances.

Council Member Ann Kitchen said her office will take all ideas presented Wednesday into consider moving forward and report back with updates.

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