Opinion: It’s time to talk about the tension between the homeless population and the Red River Cultural District

Last week’s Austin Chronicle cover story was a solidly reported piece from music writer Kevin Curtin about tension that’s been growing over the last several years as Red River has grown into the city’s most vibrant live music district, adjacent to city services for the homeless, most notably the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH).

Venue owners say they don’t take issue with the homeless people served by the ARCH and other nearby service organizations, but contend that there is also a criminal element that lingers downtown, often attempting to prey on other homeless folks who might just be down on their luck. They describe a street scene of drug deals and prostitution going down feet from their club. They say cleaning up human feces outside their back doors is a regular activity. Curtin says one police officer he talked to for the story concurred “a considerable portion of the downtown transient population are career criminals who’ve been paroled to Austin and dropped out of transitional housing.” An open records request he filed with Texas’ Department of Criminal Justice showed that 150 out of 586 state prisoners paroled to Austin in 2016 had not previously lived here.

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Cheer Up Charlies on Red River St. Martin do Nascimento/AMERICAN-STATESMAN (WEBB'S #1 in WE LOVE AUSTIN)

Cheer Up Charlies on Red River St. Martin do Nascimento/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

This is the whispered conversation I’ve heard downtown for years. It’s hard to talk about it because no one wants to sound like the jerk saying, “Let’s get the homeless out of the way so we can party.”

There’s a serious safety issue at play. As someone who goes to a lot of shows, sometimes by myself, it’s something I encounter regularly. It’s not just street harassment, although there’s tons of that. It’s the men (always men) who aggressively try to extort money from you when you’re lucky enough to actually find a parking meter. The ones who follow you on the streets. The dude who literally pulled out his junk and shook it at me as I was walking to my car alone at 5 p.m. on a weekday last year.

My sense is these issues must disproportionately affect women who want to be a part of Austin’s live music scene. (Also, women who work downtown and women who are attempting to get help from the downtown service organizations.)

Right now, the clubs that support the heart of Austin’s live music scene are fighting to stay alive amid soaring rent hikes. They know they need to expand their hours to survive and they also need to broaden their client base.

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That doesn’t just mean creating a better environment for South by Southwest-ers and tourists, but also locals, including women and, believe it or not, children.

Light art is on display for "Creek Show" in and along Waller Creek in downtown Austin, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

Light art is on display for “Creek Show” in and along Waller Creek in downtown Austin, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

When I did a story on raising the next generation of live music fans last year, I was surprised by the enthusiasm club owners had for the idea of more family-friendly early shows, especially in the Red River district. But they worried the dicey street scene could stand in their way.

“Our approach as venues used to be as agents of entropy like, ‘Hey if we keep things run down and kind of gritty … it would stop, kind of magically, rents from rising, and it would keep the scene pure,'” Cody Cowan, general manager of Red River club the Mohawk, said last year. As they got older and grew into scene leaders, he said, “it became apparent that’s not really how economics or growth works.”

“Now we’re like, ‘How do we get the sidewalks cleaned up? How do we have art projects? How can we bring the birds onto the street so they can chirp and create beauty for the people?” he said. 

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Steve Sternschein, owner of Empire Control Room and Garage, described the annual Waller Creek Show art show, a 10-day exhibition of light installations on the creek, as an incredible, transformative experience for the district. “Typically, like, no one really wants to talk about what happens down in the creek area, but essentially, it sometimes is like tent city,” he said last year. “There’s all sorts of illegal, dangerous stuff happening down there, but for a beautiful 10-day period it’s art and it’s walkable and really, the reason that happens is something like 8,000 people came through last year over the course of the week and there were no problems with the transient population. They all left because people were spending time there and there just wasn’t an opportunity for them to engage in that negative behavior because people were coming out.” 

Homelessness in Austin — and anywhere — is a complicated issue that needs to be approached thoughtfully and cautiously. Curtin’s article examines the need for more law enforcement in the Red River district, but ultimately doesn’t offer solutions. But it shines light on a difficult problem, which is a solid first step.


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