Cigar shop says homelessness, other downtown problems forced it to close

(Left) An individual lays down at E. 6th Street and Neches. (Right) Cigars sold at Bobalu Cigaro Co. (KXAN Photos/ Alyssa Goard).
(Left) An individual lays down at E. 6th Street and Neches. (Right) Cigars sold at Bobalu Cigaro Co. (KXAN Photos/ Alyssa Goard).

AUSTIN (KXAN) — After 21 years of operating their location on East Sixth Street off of Neches Street, Bobalu Cigar Co. has decided to shut its doors, moving everything to their north Austin location on Burnet Road.

While there were a number of factors– increasing rent, lack of parking, lack of sanitation– that drove Bobalu president Jeff Lipton to this decision, he said the main reason he left comes down to one major issue.

“The problem is that you have the massive amount of indigent homeless, right in the very heart of Sixth Street and it is causing a massive problem, and hence the name ‘Dirty Sixth,'” said Lipton, referring to the colloquial name for the district on East Sixth west of Interstate 35.

Lipton feels the city neglected East Sixth Street improvements as other parts of downtown saw upgrades.

“Having a huge — not just a normal, but a huge — homeless population right on the edge of downtown within a block on my business has caused major problems,” Lipton said. He explained that his customers experienced excessive panhandling, his patrons would hear gunshots up the street and he didn’t feel safe having his employees walk to their cars by themselves

“It all seems to stem with having a huge crime problem right in the center of downtown in the jewel of the city,” Lipton said.

Lipton said that he’d wished the city had moved the homeless resources, which are concentrated around East Seventh Street, away from downtown businesses.

“I don’t think it should be located there on some of the most expensive real estate downtown,” he added, noting that perhaps the land on Seventh Street could be sold to fund projects that could go to help Austin’s homeless.

People standing on Austin's East Sixth Street. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).
People standing on Austin’s East Sixth Street. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo represents District 9 where Bobalu’s Sixth street location was. Tovo said she’s sorry to hear that Bobalu will be leaving the Sixth Street location and is concerned about the reasons about why they’re relocating.

She cautions that homelessness and crime in downtown Austin are not necessarily related.

“We’ve certainly had several acts of violence near the ARCH,” Tovo acknowledged, referring to Austin’s Resource Center for the Homeless on  East Seventh and Neches. “But we have had crimes and acts of violence that are not related with homelessness and I just want to be sure that we’re not conflating all of those.”

“I would say a good deal of the crime that’s happening in the Sixth Street area is not associated with those experiencing homelessness,” she said, speaking from her experience working with APD officers patrolling that area.

Tovo was involved with a pilot effort between the city, non-profits and APD to improve health and safety for Austin’s homeless that started during the summer of 2017.

Many of the pilot services for the homeless have tapered off, but the impacts and community partnerships remain. In fact the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) noted that during the pilot, downtown saw an increased police presence and the lowest amount of crime in three years around the ARCH.

Tovo has heard concerns from other businesses across downtown about safety and about the nearby homelessness population. The city has increased police presence and installed more portable toilets to address some of those concerns.

But for the homeless community and Austin’s businesses to start seeing noticeable changes, Tovo says, “it is at a point where we probably need to talk about increasing resources.”

She added that now that the pilot program is over, the city needs to focus on getting Austin’s homeless into long-term housing. “In this last budget cycle, the council was able to increase its budget for social services and for housing, but it’s insufficient compared to the need,” Tovo explained.

During the pilot program, service organizations have already identified many of those who are chronically homeless in downtown Austin, explained Ann Howard, executive director of ECHO. She said the problem is advocates don’t have enough money to fund placing all these people in long-term homes

“We need to be able to scale up our resources, to address their needs, to get them off the streets, and the longer we wait for the perfect funding solution, the perfect funding mechanism, the more we will see this happen I’m afraid,” Howard said, referring to Bobalu’s decision to leave East Sixth.

“The cigar owner — I haven’t met him– he could become a leader,” Howard added. “He sees the need, it’s impacting his bottom line, he tells us. So what I would hope is that he get his own house in order and makes his move and he would get involved, he would become a voice for the homeless.”

ECHO will be conducting their point-in-time count of the homeless population on Jan. 27, 2018. If you would like to volunteer with their efforts, look here.

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