Homeless camps have hurt businesses, economy, Downtown Austin Alliance says

AUSTIN (KXAN) — One group said the increase in people living on the streets downtown has hurt many businesses. That comes during more than a year of challenges tied to the pandemic.

“There’s certainly some challenges, obviously, as the city grows and gets bigger,” said Ellis Winstanley, co-owner and president of El Arroyo.

Serving Austin for nine years, Winstanley has witnessed its growth. One of those challenges: homelessness.

“I’ve had a moment of that personally, but I’ve heard about it more from people working downtown,” said Winstanley, of safety concerns.

Other business owners feel more strongly.

In October, Downtown Austin Alliance surveyed nearly 2,000 residents, employees and visitors and found 75% of respondents said safety downtown had gotten worse over the last year, and most — 73% — wanted homelessness addressed.

“Since the ordinance has changed nearly two years ago, things have gotten way out of balance,” said Bill Brice, vice president of investor relations for Downtown Austin Alliance.

He said they can’t comment on Proposition B itself but said they’ve seen a negative impact since the public camping ban was first lifted in 2019.

“This has definitely been detrimental to downtown economy, to the economy of the city as a whole. It may just not be showing up yet,” Brice said, although he said they do not have data indicating that impact.

Numbers from nonprofit ECHO show the homeless community has grown downtown between 2017 and 2019.

“In terms of crime data, downtown is a very safe place and safe city as a whole — the perception is not necessarily there, and that typically affects our visitors industry,” Brice said.

But he said fixing that goes beyond laws and ordinances. He wants to see more housing and better services.

“We’ve got to give people that are there immediate alternatives that are better than camping in places that weren’t intended for habitation,” he said.

The Austin Chamber of Commerce endorsed Prop B. It posted that position to its website in March. In a statement to KXAN Monday, it added “the status quo in Austin isn’t working.”

Both the chamber and the alliance said they are committed to the helping the city’s promise to house 3,000 people in three years, a goal that came out of the Summit to Address Unsheltered Homelessness in April.

While Winstanley didn’t want to comment on Prop B, he said he’s glad to see the city’s phased approach and hopes leaders are also consulting with homelessness experts in Austin and beyond.

“You want to work with somebody before you try to take some kind of punitive measures,” he said.