30-day pilot program around downtown homeless shelter begins

Austin police officer patrolling outside the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH) (KXAN Photo)
Austin police officer patrolling outside the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH) (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Tuesday marks the first day of dramatic changes the city of Austin is making to address what’s become a public health and safety crisis in downtown Austin: the crowd of homeless people surrounding the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, known as the ARCH.

For the next 30 days the city will try to reduce the crowd and drug dealing within it.

Now that the clock’s ticking, KXAN wanted to know, what can we expect when it’s over? There’s still a number of unknowns, like how to pay for the efforts long-term.

Here’s a quick look at the changes:

  • Two APD officers will be stationed outside the ARCH 24 hours a day for the next month
  • Porta-potties have been installed
  • There’s additional lighting
  • New requirements to get free meals 

When asked how sustainable the efforts are, ECHO Executive Director Ann Howard told KXAN, “We’re gonna take it one day at a time. We’re gonna make changes along the way to best serve the clients. We’re advocating every day for additional resources.”

Mayor Steve Adler followed up, saying, “We do need additional funding in order to sustain meeting this challenge. And there are several different places that that funding could come from.”

Some potential options the mayor named include community support, government funding through the homeless resource organizations, additional funding in the city budget and an increased hotel tax as part of his proposed “downtown puzzle.” He suggested a plan last month to tackle downtown’s homeless problem that would take a tax increase on tourists, a convention center expansion and housing.

“I don’t want to tie it just as a demonstration project. This is an end in and of itself,” Adler said. “But at the same time, I do think that when the community sees the providers and the partners all coming together, I hope that that builds momentum.”

Momentum for a more permanent solution that’s still not entirely clear. For now, APD has a mix of on duty and overtime officers at the ARCH. As for the cost, Assistant Police Chief Justin Newsom said, “We’d have to wait and see once it’s all — you know — comes out in the wash. We’re making changes daily based on staffing issues.”

APD says it’s created a funding code so the department can track the overtime expenses related to this effort.

Sara Black, who is currently staying at the Salvation Army, expressed concerns about the changes to free meals offered. “The thing about homelessness in Austin that everybody is on board about is that there aren’t enough slots in the shelters. So that means that you’re going to leave hundreds of people without food every day — and for the city to tell people not to serve or bring food to this area is just inhumane.”

Caritas of Austin provides free meals to around 300 people a day. Under their current policy, Caritas doesn’t turn anyone away, but that changed Tuesday when Caritas moved their food services to the ARCH. The plan is to only serve food to people who are staying at a shelter or are enrolled in case management at the ARCH. They expect this will reduce the number of people eating with them to 150.

“We are just trying different methods to see if we can encourage people to become engaged in services,” Jo Kathryn Quinn, the executive director of Caritas of Austin told KXAN last week.

Sammy Nutall is currently homeless after moving to Austin from Houston six months ago. He isn’t convinced this pilot program will make a big difference, but for different reasons.

“Main stuff that needed to be said, was not even said,” he told KXAN. “They’re trying to push all the problems off on K2, you know?”

Nutall said what was noticeably missing from the announcement for him was any mention of employment or a job fair.

“Now the issues of homelessness are not ones that we’re going to be able to solve overnight. But the mayor pro tem and I and our colleagues on the council are committed to ending homelessness in this city,” Adler said.

KXAN learned Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo has put in $2.4 million worth of budget requests for the city council to consider:

Respite Services
Medical care for persons too ill or frail to recover on the streets, but not ill enough to be in hospital.
Cost: $15,000/bed/annually = $180,000
Outcome: 12 more respite beds where people who are experiencing homelessness can heal safely.

Create outreach & housing navigation services (4 new staff)
Cost: $260,000
Outcome: More people connected to housing, services, and community, with a special focus on the downtown homeless population.

System Planning and Coordination
Dedicated support for homelessness prevention, coordination, performance monitoring, and continuous monitoring of system efficiencies.
Outcome: Funding impact is maximized.

Increase rapid re‐housing capacity for 100 persons per year (includes direct rental assistance, case management, employment services, and program costs)
Cost: $1,900,000
Outcome: 100 more people housed annually.

City council is scheduled to approve a budget next month.

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