Since the July 1 homeless ordinance change, a central question for many Austinites has been “How will this affect the community?”
The ordinance allows camping in most public areas and it has caused quite a stir in Texas’ capital city, so much so that 1,000 people showed up for the forum last week hosted by Mayor Adler.
And over 28,000 people have signed a petition to rescind the ordinance.
A huge concern is how the change has impacted commercial areas — like the bustling epicenter that is Congress Avenue.
A simple stroll down the road running perpendicular to the state capitol and it won’t take long to spot a makeshift camp, lounging body, or a pile of belongings. With homeless individuals peppering the sidewalks, street corners, and other public areas, businesses are struggling to deal with the consequences of the city’s new progressive camping ordinance.
“They took a problem and made it a crisis overnight,” Craig Staley, co-owner of Royal Blue Grocery (RBG) told The Texan on August 22 about the ordinance change.
Historically, RBG’s Congress Avenue store has been their most trafficked. Since the rule change, however, it has dropped to their least trafficked.
The problem didn’t just appear out of thin air, Staley said, adding that “Six years ago [the Congress location] was our busiest store, and last month it was our slowest store.”
“What they undid in three weeks is now going to take three months to fix, and I don’t know if we’ll still be open by then after dark on Congress Avenue,” Staley said.
Staley and his employees don’t feel safe at that location once the sun goes down.
“The behaviors [of homeless people] have become very aggressive,” Staley lamented. Police are called often, and especially so since July 1.
According to Staley, who was informed of this by one of the clerks, the 7/11 store next to RBG, “has called police as many as 20 times in a day.”
Meanwhile, two weeks ago, the RBG location on Congress had a criminal trespass notice issued every day that week.
Staley said during his numerous interactions with the police, they stressed to him their frustration with the policies. “They can’t do their job right now and there’s nothing they can do about it,” Staley added.
“If we didn’t have APD doing what they do, that store on Congress would have closed a long time ago,” he stated.
“One aspect of the problem I think our city is really unprepared to deal with is the mental health and drug addiction side of it,” Staley said.
Some homeless individuals simply prefer living on the street to being taken to a shelter. The RBG on Congress has, for a few years now, had a man living on the sidewalk outside its doors. Staley said they have had no threatening or aggressive problems with the man, whose name is Shannon and has been on the street since he was 15, but “now we can’t do anything about all his belongings up against our patio or him sleeping right there.”
Staley has offered to take Shannon to a shelter only to be refused, saying “I’ve been doing this since I was 15. This is me. This is how I live. I like to travel, and I might just pick up and go across country tomorrow. I just never know.”
About those like Shannon who prefer living on the street and the mayor’s strategy of increasing housing availability, Staley added, “Hopefully there is a reality check in there. There are some people who have needs that we’re not going to be able to meet or are definitely not meeting right now — especially when it comes to mental health.”
When asked what he would like to see the city do, Staley stated, “I don’t disagree with some of the changes made,” for example “I don’t think that being homeless should automatically put you in an illegal situation.”
Staley also added that he thinks there is a “real First Amendment question” behind the panhandling ordinance change, that there is no real solution to it without infringing upon constitutional rights.
Staley specified that there should be some places for people to camp or lie down, but that there are “places we want to protect so they are accessible, safe, clean, and inviting for everyone to be able to use.”
“We just can’t let downtown go this way,” Staley emphasized in frustration.
A block north, the Paramount Theatre has experienced less turmoil than RBG, but also its own set of issues.
“We have felt a bit greater presence of those who are experiencing homelessness lying and sleeping near the doors, more so than [before the ordinance change],” Jim Ritts, CEO and executive director of the Paramount Theatre, told The Texan. Ritts also said the Paramount and its customers have experienced more “relentless panhandling.”
There have even been a few instances of Ritts’ employees being verbally accosted or spit on. Ritts specified that these incidents have happened throughout the year, including before the July 1 change.
“This is a human issue. If we address that side, the impact on the small businesses will take care of itself. But we must address it,” Ritts added.
Ritts emphasized, “The time for talking about this has long passed. And now we need specific plans with specific timetables, and a commitment from our city leaders.”
For the Omni Hotel, two blocks east of Congress Avenue, problems with homelessness have been increasing over the last 18 months. Gene McMenamin, general manager of the Omni Hotel, told The Texan, “One guest said to me ‘I’ve been coming to your hotel since the 90s, and I won’t be back.’”
McMenamin is finding that his guests are afraid to go out at night, especially alone.
“We recommend that our guests take a taxi or an Uber from outside the hotel, even if they’re going a short distance,” McMenamin said of how they are dealing with the safety concerns.
About six months ago, one of McMenamin’s employees was assaulted in the lobby.
“A female manager approached a homeless person and he shoved her against the wall,” McMenamin stated. But that has been the only instance of such an incident.
“We tell our customers not to go east when leaving the building and I tell my employees to park in the garage below so they’re not out walking at night,” he added.
“We have not had a lot of people camping in front of the hotel, but we are seeing far more people sitting on sidewalks,” McMenamin stated. He then added plainly, “But we do notice that they seem to be much more aggressive.”
McMenamin stated that he doesn’t “think council or the mayor are really listening to the business people.”
He is also concerned that the city is inviting more homelessness.
McMenamin said he would like to see shelters built in every council district to spread the reach out among the entire city — pointing to other city’s strategies of creating tent facilities. “It’s going to take more than just the government’s effort to get this done but I don’t see it improving in the near term,” McMenamin concluded.
Jenkins Davis, a membership advisor at Gold’s Gym located a block from Congress Avenue on 6th Street, told The Texan that they have seen a sharp increase in harassment, drug use, and obstruction of pathways.
Part of the gym’s service is conducting group runs outside, which has become more hazardous with the increased camping and lying on the sidewalks.
“We’ve had a lot of people trying to sneak into our gym to use our restrooms or steal something from the business or our customers,” Davis stated. When this happens, Davis’ hands are tied from preventing them from leaving with the stolen item, and all he can do is report it.
This costs the business money both in replacing stolen possessions and losses in customers.
“Our female customers are constantly harassed or cat-called,” Davis added.
The camping, drug dealing, and harassment “paints the picture that Austin is the new skid row,” Davis uttered dismayingly.
For these Austin businesses, the homelessness problem has been an issue for a while now, but the July 1 ordinance change has clearly created a new degree of alarm.
Staley, the co-owner of Royal Blue Grocery, concluded with this statement, “Either they [the city] knew exactly what they were doing — and the consequences that would come with it — and they did it to further their agenda, or they had no idea what the outcome was going to be and this is shocking them.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of the article stated that Royal Blue Grocery had chosen to change their operating hours to close at 6pm. The store owner later said they were considering the change.
Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad watching and quoting Monty Python productions.