AUSTIN (KXAN) — The owner of Vince Young Steakhouse says homelessness in Austin is reaching a boiling point.
Phillip Brown, also executive chef of the downtown restaurant, said he’s speaking out because incidents involving homeless in the city happening more frequently.
Brown shared on Twitter recently:
He told KXAN he took those pictures last week.
“Our biggest thing is this isn’t safe for anybody, and that includes the homeless population,” Brown explained.
He said problems started escalating about a year and a half ago.
“The first real major incident that I had was I had my head split open,” Brown said in an interview. “We had a guy, he was knocking over tables on our patio.”
When he called 911, he said the man believed to be homeless hit him in the head. He needed 13 stitches.
Then about six months ago, he found a man relieving himself in the parking lot.
When Brown asked him to leave, Brown said the man responded, “This is Austin. We can do whatever we want. You can’t tell me what to do. There’s nothing you or the police can do.”
Last month, a man was stabbed near the restaurant. Police said both the victim and suspect appeared to be homeless.
“That happened when a lot of our staff come in, and someone could’ve been arriving at that time, and who knows what could’ve happened,” Brown said.
“We know there’s no simple answers to this,” he added. “It’s a problem that requires time. It’s not going to be fixed overnight.”
Police presence in the downtown area
A few weeks ago, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley announced he’s increasing police presence downtown after a woman stabbed several people near Sixth Street.
Last summer, APD increased patrols downtown after a series of violent incidents, but as City Council Member Kathie Tovo explained, that ended a few months later.
“We’ve certainly heard safety concerns from businesses owners, residents and individuals who have worked downtown or are headed downtown,” Tovo told KXAN.
She explained: “One of the ways in which my office responded — I brought forward a budget measure during our last year’s budget to maintain officers in our downtown… but when the pilot ended those officers were removed.”
According to Tovo, the newly heightened police presence is expected to continue through South By Southwest, which takes place next month.
Over the weekend, Mayor Steve Adler told us, “As we become a bigger city, as we have more and more people mixing in our downtown area, maybe we just need to keep an increased presence indefinitely.”
Adler spoke with us after a vendor announced it was leaving a downtown farmer’s market. They pointed to threats and aggressive behavior involving people who are homeless.
Adler emphasized Austin remains one of the safest big cities in America and that you can’t automatically link people who are homeless to violent crimes.
He said over the phone Monday, “We have a challenge. We’re attacking it, not hiding it.”
When asked about keeping the increased police patrols downtown, Tovo responded, “What I’ve made clear to the [city] manager is that as soon as they have available information, I would like to understand the cost of providing the extra level of public safety presence that there are right now in downtown. I would like to understand what those costs are, so our council can have an understanding and a conversation, whether or not we should continue those in the long run.”
She explained, however, that individuals who are experiencing homelessness are not more likely to commit crime.
Meanwhile, Brown says that while there are definitely “more officers patrolling, and they do a phenomenal job, but they can’t be everywhere all the time.”
The Austin Police Association told us keeping a higher level of staffing downtown is possible by using overtime.
But the association president said the officers are overworked. Many are working more than 50 hours a week and some 76 hours a week. That’s the maximum amount allowed by law.
Focus on mental health and substance abuse help
Brown told KXAN he wants the city council to do more to fix the root problem of homelessness.
“I don’t think anybody starts out wanting to be homeless. There’s mental illness, substance abuse problems and those things have caused that,” he said.
Brown aid he knows it’s not going to be fixed overnight, but “as a business we’re the ones experiencing these problems on a day in and day out basis. We just want some support and feel that we are being cared about, that our opinion does matter.”