‘Public safety crisis’ from downtown homeless sparks major changes

Adrian Westmoreland and his son stand outside of Austin's Resource Center for the Homeless. They have been homeless since December. (KXAN Photo/ Andrew Choat)
Adrian Westmoreland and his son stand outside of Austin's Resource Center for the Homeless. They have been homeless since December. (KXAN Photo/ Andrew Choat)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Tuesday morning, a collaborative effort between the City of Austin, the Austin Police Department, as well as community groups and businesses will test a new strategy for supporting the homeless population downtown.

They will test out these efforts during a month-long trial period while gathering data. Their results will determine which parts of this program may continue in the long term.

ECHO Austin, one of the groups involved in this effort, said that the overcrowding of the homeless population downtown as well as the increased drug activity there is a “health and public safety crisis.”

On Tuesday, service providers will add staff downtown to work with the homeless, said Ann Howard, the executive director of ECHO. The free meal services provided at Austin’s Resource Center for the Homeless on 7th and Neches will change as well. Caritas of Austin will provide free meals there while adding a requirement that only people who are staying at a shelter or enrolled in ARCH services will be able to receive them.

“People who need housing and support services ought to be able to access service providers like the Salvation Army and Caritas and Front Steps at the ARCH without being asked to buy drugs and other illicit behaviors out there,” Howard said. Their ultimate goal is to end homelessness for every person experiencing it in Austin and Travis County.

They will also be installing six port-a-potties in the area around the ARCH. That area did not previously have any public, outdoor restrooms.

“It’s a great idea — should have been here a long time ago because the feces out here is ridiculous and they don’t even clean it up,” said Adrian Westmoreland, who has been homeless along with his 11-year-old son since December.

Austin police will also increase patrols. Starting Tuesday, they will be staffing two officers near the ARCH at all hours of the day. APD also added two large platform lights to help cut down on crime in the area.

Assistant Police Chief Justin Newsom explained that the overcrowding of the homeless population is tied to the spike of drug activity in the area.

“We had the spike in K2 calls earlier this year which led to a few people dying actually,” Newsom said. He added that just this year his officers have made more than 100 narcotics arrests near the ARCH.

“There are homeless men and women and children that are just languishing on the sidewalks without services being provided to them. Because of that, it’s created this environment where drug dealers can prey on substance-addicted individuals,” he said.

Amber Meyers is homeless and a recovering drug addict who walks to the ARCH for food and resources. She told KXAN she now sleeps away from the ARCH to avoid encountering people talking about and selling drugs.

“[7th and Neches] has changed a lot, the drugs have gotten bad for people who are in recovery and are trying to get sober. It’s really hard because every street corner you turn there’s some kind of something there. So people who are trying to get help can’t really get help,” she said.

It’s a problem she encounters often as she’s recently been walking to the ARCH to apply for housing.

“Every time I come down here, I see my battle of use, so it’s distracting,” she said.

Westmoreland said that he is homeless not due to drugs, but because his wife died which led his family into financial difficulties.

He has mixed feelings about the new plan for Austin’s homeless. He hopes community leaders also focus on providing mental health resources, technology and career education for the homeless.

“We need more job education. We need more tutors out here. We need more resources, computer rooms labs where they can build resumes, teach them how to build resumes and all that. A lot of them don’t know how to do resumes,” he said.

Ann Howard with ECHO explained that in the long term, she sees a funding gap as big issue to combating homelessness in Austin.  She believes it will take more public and private partnerships like these to come up with a sustainable solution.

“We need more funding than is currently available, so all the different initiatives we’ve heard about whether its the call for the downtown puzzle pieces or a new funding model called Pay for Success, we need all of that money — and then some — to end homelessness,” Howard said.

KXAN.com provides commenting to allow for constructive discussion on the stories we cover. In order to comment here, you acknowledge you have read and agreed to our Terms of Service. Users who violate these terms, including use of vulgar language or racial slurs, will be banned. If you see an inappropriate comment, please flag it for our moderators to review.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s