Austin's homeless face new requirements to get free meals downtown

AUSTIN (KXAN) -- On Aug. 15, the city of Austin, Austin police along with community groups and businesses will make changes to how services are delivered to the homeless in the area near Seventh and Neches streets, part of a larger month-long pilot program to improve health and safety for the homeless downtown.

It's the area where the  Austin Resource Center for the Homeless is located and where Caritas of Austin provides free meals to around 300 people a day. Under their current policy, Caritas doesn't turn anyone away.

But that will change when the city's pilot effort goes into effect, with Caritas moving their food services to the ARCH.

They will also only serve food to people who are staying at a shelter or are enrolled in case management at the ARCH. They expect this will reduce the number of people eating with them to 150.

"We are just trying different methods to see if we can encourage people to become engaged in services," said Jo Kathryn Quinn, executive director of Caritas of Austin.

Caritas gave their clients a heads up about this change and told them about other spots where they can access food. Quinn explained that the month-long pilot program will help them to gather data about Austin's homeless and proceed based on the results they find.

During the 30-day period, Caritas of Austin is asking that people do not drop off food donations in the Seventh and Neches area so that the survey can get accurate data of how many people need the food services being provided.

"The thinking is the service providers will provide their service to the true homeless who really need it and not just to some guy who is there waiting for us to round the corner so that he can sell K2 to someone," explained Assistant Chief Justin Newsom with the Austin Police Department.

"There are homeless men and women and even children at times that are just languishing on the sidewalks without services being provided to them. Because of that it's created this environment where drug dealers can prey upon substance addicted individuals," Newsom said.

Newsom and his colleagues have seen firsthand the impact of drug dealers around the ARCH, especially with the spike in K2 incidents this spring. He explained that the goal of this pilot program is to get as many of Austin's homeless housed, stabilized and on the path to a successful life.

Concerns over meal changes

During a walk with Newsom downtown Thursday around the ARCH, many of the homeless people walking outside told KXAN they had concerns about this change in the free meal program as well. Because Caritas food services are located centrally, homeless individuals around the ARCH knew of the program and used it often.

Darryl Brandenburg, a homeless Austin resident, explained that he doesn't often go to Caritas but he knows that they are one of the more popular food options for downtown. He worries that losing another option where the homeless can easily access free food could be problematic. Brandenburg explains that he plans his entire day around where he can go to access these meals.

"If you stop the food outlets it's just going to cause people to break the law, steal whatever they need to survive," he said.  "People who are homeless are gonna find a way to eat, you don't want them living out of garbage cans."

Brandenburg said these free meals are especially important because he has no place to store food in.

Shayan Bhathena, a social services volunteer and a researcher at the C.D. Doyle Clinic, added that several homeless individuals she's worked with at the clinic are worried abut the changes to the meal program. She said many at her clinic, which is across the street from the ARCH, express anxiety about how long it takes to get enrolled for services and assigned to a case manager.

"There's a lot of concern around this, about where these people are going to get their food for the next few weeks, even though I understand the long-term reasoning behind it," Bhathena said. "I think it's just kind of scary when you have all these people depending on a food source and then one day its just not here."

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