Austin rolls out second phase to tackle homelessness downtown

The area outside the ARCH now has new port-a-potties, cleaner streets, and greater police presence as part of a city effort to address the overcrowding and crime near homeless services downtown. (KXAN PHOTO/ Alyssa Goard).
The area outside the ARCH now has new port-a-potties, cleaner streets, and greater police presence as part of a city effort to address the overcrowding and crime near homeless services downtown. (KXAN PHOTO/ Alyssa Goard).

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The city of Austin, Austin police and many community groups will launch their second phase of major changes to address homelessness downtown Monday.

After the first phase ended on Friday, Austin is starting a second 30-day trial in an effort to make sure that the people who need resources in downtown Austin are the ones actually being connected with services.

The first phase of this effort started on Aug. 15 as a 30-day pilot program to cut down on crime, eliminate overcrowding and help bring homeless individuals there to long-term housing.

Ann Howard, executive director for the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) in Austin, explained that there are hundreds of homeless individuals staying in Austin and Travis County and roughly 50-75 people who sleep outside Austin’s Resource Center of the Homeless (ARCH) every night. Howard and the coalition now know more than ever about who these people are and what they need thanks to the data they’ve been tracking over the last month.

Using that data, they’ve identified by name, 75 people who regularly stay in the area near the ARCH. More than half of those people are men, 22 have housing plans, 20 sleep at shelters, and 45 of them use services at the ARCH during the day. On average, 166 people sleep at the ARCH every night, all of them men. The Salvation Army houses around 250 people each night including men, women and children.

During the first trial period, the coalition was able to transition two of those 75 people into leases with permanent supportive housing.

Starting Monday, free meal services will change downtown. During the first month, meal services at Caritas of Austin were streamlined into the ARCH and made only available to people who were actively receiving services at the ARCH. On Monday, those free lunches will be moved back to Caritas across the street and made available to anyone who needs it. The ARCH will provide a light breakfast and an evening meal for clients there. Salvation Army will continue their new effort to offer three meals per day.

Howard said people staying around the ARCH told service providers that they were overwhelmingly happy with the new police presence there. The coalition also plans to continue the cleaning efforts in the area and maintain the new port-a-potties there. The streets near the ARCH are visibly cleaner and less crowded than they were a month ago.

Howard explained that most of the long-term housing programs are already full, meaning that Austin will need more funds to transition everyone living on the streets to long-term housing. She would like to see the type of public and private sector support given to Harvey evacuees in Austin extended to the homeless community as well.

“Within days we have temporary shelter, it’s got staffing, it’s funded, there’s food, there’s air conditioning, there’s brand new cots,” she said of the shelter provided for evacuees in Austin. “So we are challenged as a community, how do we every day deal with the crisis of homelessness as if it is a crisis in a natural disaster? For the people experiencing homelessness, it is a disaster.”

During the first pilot, two Austin police officers were staffed outside the ARCH at all hours.

“Unfortunately the police will need to scale back their presence there because it’s been funded through over time but it’s proven to be quite costly,” explained Mayor Pro tem Kathie Tovo. “That was a disappointment but they are committed to trying to keep as much presence there for as many hours as possible.”

To her understanding, APD will have a regular post near the ARCH, but officers there may be diverted to other calls if they’re needed.

Tovo noted that APD has helped Austin’s homeless to get more resources in the past month by targeting drug dealers who have increasingly traveled into downtown to prey on the homeless. 

Overall, Tovo believes the program has been enormously successful so far. In order to move forward, Tovo said these efforts need more funding.

“We do have a lot of individuals in this community who have sought out searches who have done what they needed to do to complete the process of providing their information, but we simply don’t have enough funding to provide those case management services to those individuals,” she said.

Adrian Westmoreland, who is now staying at the Salvation Army with his 11-year-old son, said the changes downtown are obvious.

“It’s changed a lot, they’ve cleaned up a lot of the area where drugs were at — which is a good thing,” Westmoreland noted.

Westmoreland first spoke with KXAN in early August, at that time he and his son had been homeless since December when his wife died.

“We just went downhill, it was like everyone was against us, it seemed like we were going nowhere fast,” he said.

In early August he couldn’t find a job, his son was not enrolled in school, and they were sleeping on the streets.

Since the program has been in place, Westmoreland found a job, he and his son have a place to stay and eat, and his son is happily enrolled in sixth grade.

He agrees with the city’s efforts to focus more on long-term housing for the people near the ARCH, but also adds that other services will have to come with the housing

“I think the long-term housing is great, but a lot of [the people near the ARCH] have problems, drug problems and mental problems,” he said. “Before they can receive longer-term housing. I believe that they need help getting over whatever that addiction is or whatever problem they are having mentally.”

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