Downtown Police Push Worries Homeless
By Era Sundar
Violent crime in Austin’s downtown area has risen by nearly 17 percent, according to the latest FBI statistics, although Austin police say the city remains one of the safest in the nation. Police have ramped up their downtown presence. And that’s raising its own set of concerns among advocates for the city’s homeless.
As victims of crime, the city’s homeless need police protection. This year alone three homeless people were beaten to death in downtown Austin. Phillip Walker is staying at the ARCH homeless shelter downtown. He says he knew one of the victims, whose body was found in a downtown park.
“It kind of affected me because it could have very well been me,” Walker said. “I believe that there should be an officer on duty around these types of places all the time.”
Lilian Maybe comes to the ARCH during the daytime only, because there are no overnight facilities for women. She used to live in a two-story home in Dripping Springs, but she says she lost it to foreclosure. Outside of the shelter, she worries about her safety.
“The police need to be more aware of the homeless situation and that people have nowhere to sleep,” Maybe said. “So where are they going to sleep?”
But the same people who need protection sometimes feel unfairly targeted by law enforcement.
“I do wish that when it comes to jaywalking tickets and sleeping on the sidewalk, if they could just wake them up and give them a warning,” Walker said. “There’s no need to give a homeless guy or a homeless female a ticket because they have no home. They have no job most of the time.”
Mitchell Gibbs is the executive director of Front Steps, the organization that runs the ARCH. He says even a misdemeanor charge for a homeless person can have long-lasting impact.
“Every time one of those homeless people gets a citation and it goes on their record, our opportunity to get them into housing diminishes,” Gibbs said. “Because every time we put somebody in front of a housing provider, they’re going to run a criminal background check.”
And with downtown Austin developing as fast as it is, advocates worry that the homeless will find themselves under ever-increasing police scrutiny. Richard Troxell is president of House the Homeless, an advocacy group.
“We see it now as F1 approaches,” Troxell said. “There seems to be an intensity of these sweeps against people experiencing homelessness. As Waller Creek is developed and becomes Austin’s version of the San Antonio River Walk, the homeless are going to be ever so much more in conflict with the moneyed and the business interests in downtown.”
Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo disagrees.
“Our public order initiative downtown has nothing to do with Formula One, nothing to do with an anti-homelessness campaign,” Acevedo said. “It has everything to do with law and order. People that live downtown have the absolute right to live in an environment that is safe for their families, for visitors, for people that work downtown.”
But as the number of visitors and apartment-dwellers grows in the downtown area, so does the number of homeless. One estimate says that more than 7,600 men, women and children have stayed in Austin shelters this year, many of them downtown.