Can Solving Austin's “Downtown Puzzle” Truly Help The Homeless Population?

December 26, 2017

Austin is a city that has typically had a rather tense relationship with its own homeless population, similar to most other cities around the United States. Austin, however, is a town who has an unofficial mascot in the form of Leslie Cochran, a homeless man that preferred to wear women's clothing and who would later fall victim to the violence that would fall upon the city. His passing in 2012 from an injury that he had sustained three years prior prompted former Mayor Lee Leffingwell to proclaim him “the icon of Austin, who was the very symbol of 'Keep Austin Weird.” City Council would later go on to declare March 8 of every year “Leslie Cochran Day.”


The mayor, unfortunately, also presided over a city government that permitted police to issue citations to individuals who were sitting down or lying down in any public space for longer than half an hour, which is an ordinance that is only truly enforced in the downtown Austin area and is designed to help regulate the homeless population. At last count, the number of homeless people living in Austin was 2,036.


Half of that number is said to be living in the downtown area, with the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless not having enough room to house them all. As a result, this leaves more of the homeless population vulnerable to factors such as crime and inclement weather elements.


Thanks to all of the downtown development, there are many who are now worried about the so-called Downtown Puzzle, which is what current Mayor Steve Adler calls “the interconnected and geographically contiguous challenges in the eastern part of downtown Austin.” In July, it was declared that the downtown area was a form of puzzle, but Mayor Adler announced that he had a solution to the issue in the form of tourists, which he feels could become a great source of revenue for aiding the homeless population. Additionally, if hotels were to voluntarily tax themselves, a total of approximately $4 million could be invested per year thanks to a new Tourism Public Improvement District, and by the year 2021, the annual take could grow to $8 million. Creating this kind of district will first require approval from not just City Council, but neighborhood hotels as well.


Other current plans include a new resolution from City Council which would essentially group all of the homeless together and allow them to work as day laborers for the city. This is a strategy that is gaining popularity all across the country and would also help educate the public that panhandling is never a good way to help other people, and that instead, individuals can call the city so that they can dispatch mobile work units to pick up those homeless people who are panhandling. Additionally, there is another development that involves meal services that used to involve no strings being attached. Organizations such as the Salvation Army and Caritas, however, are now requiring that homeless people that they serve must enroll in programs at the shelter, or stay at the shelter itself.


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