Austin (KXAN) — At the meeting of Austin’s City Council Thursday, the council voted to give the city the green light to begin negotiating a contract with the person who used to lead the federal government’s efforts on addressing homelessness.
The city’s contract for Matthew Doherty, who served as the Executive Director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness from 2015 through 2019, would be $95,000, and he would work with the city on homeless strategy through September.
All council members voted to move forward with this action except for Council Member Jimmy Flannigan who voted against it, citing concerns that the city hadn’t addressed existing concerns about this role and that the city should be allowing Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition to organize the effort to address homelessness.
At the meeting Thursday, Assistant City Manager Chris Shorter explained that the idea is for Doherty’s role to be “strategic and tailored,” helping the city while Austin Public Health recruits someone to lead the newly-created Homeless Services Division under their department.
Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk explained that the $95,000 is an up-to amount, meaning that Doherty will only get paid for the amount of work he does for the city, up to as much as $95,000.
In September of 2019, Lori Pampilo Harris began working in a newly created role as Austin’s Homeless Strategy Officer. However, she no longer works for the city, having worked as Homeless Strategy Officer for less than four months. Back in October, the city announced that Pampilo Harris would move to a consulting role. In January, the city of Austin told KXAN that her last day with the city was Jan. 3 and that she never worked as a consultant with the city.
This all comes as Austin City Council continues to cite addressing homelessness as its number one priority and embarks on another year of seeking to move the needle in doing so.
Federal experience in addressing homelessness
Matthew Doherty was reported to have been pushed out of the role in November 2019. President Trump instead appointed Robert Marbut to Doherty’s prior position. While Doherty championed a housing-first policy in addressing homelessness, Marbut has more reservations about housing-first than his predecessor.
Doherty was quoted in 2019 encouraging people to, “resist bogus arguments that a focus on Housing First imposes a one-size-fits-all solution on people or programs.”
“We can speak the real truth that Housing First approaches are the opposite of one-size-fits-all and help ensure that we don’t leave anyone behind,” Doherty said.
The City of Austin is also committed to a housing-first approach when it comes to homelessness.
A November city memo noted, “Housing First is not housing only” and that housing first includes interventions like “diversion, shelter, rapid re-housing, and permanent supportive housing, subject to an individual’s needs and the availability of resources.”
Austin Mayor Steve Adler explained that he had the chance to meet with both Doherty and Marbut while at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in January. Adler said he was aware at that time the city was considering bringing Doherty on in a consulting role.
“I am not sure they are as far apart as others suggest,” the mayor said of Marbut and Doherty. “I think both of them recognize that services are much more successful when they are associated with housing, and that services alone is not a good solution, and that housing alone is not a good solution.”
“The housing first approach we’ve adopted in Austin is shorthand for getting somebody into a home immediately with services, so ours is not housing without services either,” Adler noted.
The mayor believes city staff are confident Doherty is on board to negotiate this contract.
“I think everybody is pushing the city manager to move forward and make sure the community is seeing real activity and hopefully we will be moving forward on the motel strategy as well,” Adler said, referring to a new strategy the city adopted in fall of 2019 to convert motels into homeless shelters.
Multiple people experiencing homelessness in Austin came to speak with the council before the vote on this contract happened.
One of those people refers to herself as “T” and explained that she is currently living at a shelter in Austin.
“Only thing I’m asking you all to do is just take an inside look at the shelters we are staying in right now,” T. told the council.
“I just want you all to take one day out of y’all’s time to come live on the streets of Austin,” she continued. “The reason why I say that is because we’re a people. We bleed. We cry. We are asking you all to help us with this homeless population.”
T. spoke with KXAN after the council vote, explaining that she was skeptical the council would be using those dollars to hire a consultant. She wondered if the dollars could be better used another way. But she said her main reason for speaking was not related to the contract, it was to ” give my thoughts on how we’ve been treated, just throughout Austin.”
“Waking up every morning, trying to figure out if the police are going to harass us for sitting over here and sitting over there, it’s crazy, I’ve been doing this for some years now and it’s really chaos,” she said.
There are specific things that T. says would help her most right now, but she has little confidence she’d actually be able to attain those things.
“What I really want is to have my own house, that would be my dream right there,” she said.”And then, and have my own business, that’s about it, so then I can return the favor to someone else who might need some help.”
Also speaking at Thursday’s meeting was Brian Thornton. He previously worked as a Chief of Staff to former Austin City Council Member Ellen Troxclair but he spoke at the meeting as a concerned Austin citizen. Thornton expressed concern that Doherty would simultaneously be helping California and Austin.
California Governor Gavin Newsom told the Sacramento Bee that he had hired Doherty “to fight back against the Trump administration’s targeting of California over its homeless population.”
In a letter, Thornton also expressed concerns with Doherty’s backing of a housing first model for addressing homelessness. Thornton cited a visual presentation of data from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (data Marbut said had “never been seen before” when he spoke at a recent event for the conservative, Austin based think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation.)
“By hiring Mr. Doherty, you’re sending the message to Austinites that you embrace the California model on homelessness that has led to a disastrous and precipitous erosion of public health, safety, environmental stewardship, public order, and public treasure,” Thornton’s letter read.
After the vote on Doherty’s contract with the city Thursday, Thornton sent KXAN a statement which read, “While I, and many other Austinites, hoped that Council would reconsider awarding this contract, the questions we raised led to a Council discussion which gives taxpayers more information than has been available about how the City Manager intends to incorporate this contract into our broader approach to addressing homelessness. Austinites and the Council must remain vigilant to ensure that this is an effective use of our money toward solving this community priority.”