AUSTIN (KXAN) — As the city of Austin wraps up its second phase of a targeted plan to address homelessness downtown, it appears one piece of that plan may be shifting crime to other parts of the city, including an area in the midst of a high-profile redevelopment project.
One of the goals in the strategy to address the problem was to remove those who prey upon the homeless; to that end, police arrested more than 80 people for selling drugs outside the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH). Afterward, Austin police stationed two officers outside the shelter constantly for a month-long pilot initiative.
That initiative ended last month, but officers are still out there — just not every hour of every day. Still, it helps.
“Now we got a constant police presence and the environment is a lot better,” Billy Garrett said. He’s only been staying at the ARCH for about three weeks, but he said having officers stationed outside gives him peace of mind.
“From what I’ve heard, even from the staff in the ARCH,” Garrett said, “it has gotten a lot better. I mean, a lot better.”
That’s what KXAN heard, too, in talking with people who have been staying at the ARCH for months. Once police showed up, those people said, the drug dealers and their customers went elsewhere. Shelter leaders say they’ve noticed the same thing.
“There’s a happy feeling, right?” Ann Howard, executive director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, said outside the shelter. “Right now we can hear laughter and people talking, interacting with the police.”
It’s a new feeling for the downtown shelter, she said. “I think that the police recognize this answered a challenge that we’ve had downtown for a while.”
But it’s created a new challenge: As the people who used to hang out at the ARCH have left, it appears they’ve taken the crime with them to other parts of downtown. In an arrest affidavit filed by an officer over the weekend, he writes the area of the Waller Creek trail around 11th and Red River streets has “become a well-documented open air drug market… because of the amount of police presence at the ARCH.”
The Waller Creek Conservancy is working to revitalize that area to make it more family-friendly. Last month, the group broke ground on a chain of parks which will eventually run from Lady Bird Lake north to Waterloo Park at a total cost of $230 million. The goal is to have everything done by 2025.
“I have seen calls from business owners in the areas of Red River,” APD’s downtown Commander Jennifer Stephenson said. Those calls aren’t necessarily all drug-related, she added, just about seeing more people hanging around the area.
She increased patrols along that corridor and officers have made a number of arrests in recent days, especially on overnight shifts. Stephenson said they don’t know right now if the increase in people and the real or perceived increase in crime can be tied to the ARCH patrols, “but anecdotally, if we don’t see as many people hanging around the ARCH and now we’re getting calls from other business owners on Red River saying they’re now seeing more people, you could assume that’s what it’s from.”
“People who are doing illegal activity don’t want to be standing right where the police are,” she said.
For the foreseeable future, the police will be at the ARCH, on patrol there for 16 hours a day, as other officers on bikes and on foot keep an eye on the Waller Creek trail and surrounding areas.