As Gov. Abbott sends ultimatum on Austin homelessness, advocates call out lack of state funding


People resting under US 183 in Austin. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

Austin (KXAN) — Texas Governor Greg Abbott threatened state intervention to address homelessness in Austin Wednesday, but some of the biggest advocates behind addressing the issue in Austin say they’ve needed state help for a while now — but in the form of more funding.

Wednesday, Abbott announced he had sent a letter to Austin Mayor Steve Adler demanding that the mayor and the Austin City Council address what the governor referred to as, “the growing homelessness crisis by November 1, 2019.” The governor explained that if he does not witness “consequential improvement” by that date, he intends to direct multiple state agencies to intervene. Abbott suggested ideas such as bringing in additional state troopers to enforce state law and prohibit criminal trespassing.

Since Austin’s council passed ordinances largely decriminalizing sitting, camping or lying down in most public places on June 20, Abbott has taken to social media several times to express disapproval of the policies and of the perpetuation of homelessness in Austin. However, at least one example the governor has pointed to as an indicator of homeless individuals causing problems in Austin has since been unsubstantiated by accounts from Austin Police.

Matt Mollica, the new Executive Director for Austin’s s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), said he takes issue with the way the governor is characterizing homelessness in Austin.

Mollica believes the governor’s statement suggests that “people experiencing homelessness are violent drug-using people, who are littering the streets with feces or other garbage or litter, and that’s biased, it’s uninformed, and it’s not fair.” 

The work that ECHO does in Austin trying to bring people out of homelessness in Austin is impacted by a lack of state funding, Mollica says.

“[The governor’s] idea that we’ll have some resolution to this without any committed resources from the state to impact this is absurd and uninformed,” he added.

“If the governor and his office want to sit down and talk with us about addressing homelessness, we’d be more than happy to talk with him about what works and what doesn’t work,” Mollica said. “The sweeping and the policing of people into the fringes of our society, that doesn’t work.”

Funding to address homelessness

The state of Texas does put resources toward addressing homelessness. The State’s Legislative Budget Board helped KXAN to find a comprehensive list of those programs.

The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs has a program called the Homeless Housing and Services Program which offers funds to cities with 285,500 or more people (including Austin). The Texas Legislature has allocated $12.9 million for that program which will be allocated throughout Fiscal Years 2020 and 2021. In the 2020 Fiscal Year, $4.9 million of that amount will go towards addressing homelessness and $1.5 million will go toward addressing youth homelessness.

The Texans Veterans Commission offers funds to help homeless veterans, that program has been allocated $12.2 million to cover the 2020 and 2021 Fiscal Years.

The Health and Human Services Commission provides a Healthy Community Collaborative state grant to offer services for people experiencing homelessness and those with mental illness or substance abuse issues, that program is allocated up to $25 million to be used throughout the 2020 and 2021 Fiscal Years.

The programs combined could total to as much as $62.7 million in state funding in total between now and the end of 2021 Fiscal Year.

HHSC also offers additional funds to local mental health authorities and housing assistance programs.

TDHCA also has a new Texas Ending Homelessness fund which will start being distributed with $210,810 split among six cities (including Austin) for the first time this fall.

The TDCA also notes that the Terrace at Oak Springs, a new 50-unit apartment complex built in Austin to house the homeless, was built using a state Housing Tax Credit Program.

Austin’s funding from the state

According to TDHCA, the city of Austin will be receiving $662,843 in the 2020 Fiscal Year from the HHSP fund, with $155, 354 of those dollars being set aside for youth homelessness.

According to Diane Siler, Deputy Budget Officer with the city of Austin, these funds will go to Austin Public Health and will be the only funds the city receives from the state related to homelessness during the 2020 Fiscal Year.

At the Texas Tribune Festival Saturday, Austin Mayor Steve Adler said that the state of Texas hasn’t been pulling its weight when it comes to supplying funding to address homelessness. Adler suggested with a gesture that the state of Texas wasn’t contributing any money to the city of Austin’s efforts to address homelessness.

Adler’s suggestion wasn’t correct, but it wasn’t far off either. It’s tough to compare exactly because Texas’ budget covers a two-year period of time, but it’s safe to say the total amount of the state budget given to the city of Austin to address homelessness is a fraction of a percent. Texas’ budget for 2020 and 2021 is $250.7 billion. If you divide the $662,843 Austin is getting from the state for homelessness in FY 2020 by $123.35 billion (half of the state’s two-year budget) you get .00053%.

“Overall, when you look at our state compared to other states, we give far less per capita than other states do,” explained Eric Samuels, president and CEO of the Texas Homeless Network. “There are other state governments that provide funding at a much higher level per capita than Texas does.”

This year in California, the state legislature set aside around $650 million to address homelessness.

Samuels said the current funding to address homelessness in Texas is owed in large part due to, “the big city mayors going to the state legislature two or three legislative sessions ago.”

He believes the money the state has set aside for homelessness so far is being well-used. Samuels says he works with many state employees who help with housing and homelessness related programs, he believes the will to meaningfully address homelessness is there.

Samuels challenged Abbott’s characterization that Austin has a growing homelessness crisis.

“An objective look at the data will show you that homelessness did increase by 5% from 2018, but that increase is only slightly above the average increase in homelessness across the state,” he explained in an email.

Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition’s Point in Time Count numbers of homeless individuals from 2010-2019. ECHO Graphic.

Samuels noted that Governor Abbott is correct that under state law, state agencies can be used to protect against threats to public safety.

“I’m distressed by the reactive and punitive nature of these examples,” Samuels said of the suggested state action Abbott listed in his statement Wednesday. “I would counter by saying that each one of these State agencies can and are in large part addressing homelessness in a more proactive and collaboratively, compassionate way.”

“And, research shows that taking this approach, communities in the state will save money and reduce the adverse effects of homelessness on households individuals, children,” he added.

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