AUSTIN (KXAN) — Designating spots where people who are homeless can camp or sleep in their cars is not the answer to reducing Austin’s homeless population — at least that’s the message from Austin’s City Manager Spencer Cronk to the Austin City Council.

Effective July 1, the City Council lifted restrictions on where homeless people can camp, sit down or sleep.

At the same time, the council members asked Cronk to explore finding at least 10 locations where people would be allowed to camp safely. They also wanted to know if there could be parking areas across Austin where people could sleep in their cars.

The resolution also asked the city manager to propose reasonable limitations on when and where camping will not be allowed.

In a memo responding to these requests, Cronk and his team said: “The Homeless Strategy Office will respectfully not bring forth recommendations for authorized encampments nor options for parking areas.”

The memo cited different studies that advised significant caution when authorizing camp sites or places to sleep in cars. It said, instead, the city should focus on “Housing First.”

“Didn’t surprise me,” said Austin’s Mayor Steve Adler. “Because what I’m hearing from cities all over the country and from the federal agency that deals with homelessness is that’s not the best idea. A much better idea is to actually provide a home.”

Adler explained, “What we have learned from experiences all over the country is that if we can get somebody into a home — a shelter, apartment converted hotel — we can get them into a home. Then they’re much better able to take advantage of the wrap around services.”

How “Housing First” works

Ellen Richards, Chief Strategy Officer for Integral Care, told KXAN Housing First is a low-barrier housing opportunity.

“One of the things that contributes to long-term or chronic homelessness is issues that keep people from getting into traditional housing programs, such as criminal histories, active mental illness, substance use disorder,” Richards said.

With Housing First, “We move people straight from the streets into housing, and we use rehabilitation supports to help them recover from the conditions such as mental illness,” Richards said.

According to Integral Care, chronic homelessness can cost taxpayers as much as $30-50,000 per year for clinical and emergency medical services.

When someone is housed with the Housing First model, there’s a minimum annual savings to the community of $20,000 in reduced shelter usage, hospital stays, emergency room visits and nights in jail.

Right now, Integral Care is helping about 500 people through the Housing First approach. Soon, they’ll be able to help 50 more people when they open Terrace and Oak Springs.

Where camping will not be allowed

In the memo, the city staff said it’s still meeting with stakeholders to fulfill the other part of the council request — determining where camping should be banned.

While that discussion is ongoing, the memo said areas with high pedestrian traffic, high automobile traffic and higher risk of flooding are being considered.

“The way, in this city that we’re not going to have people camping, is to provide more housing,” Adler said. “And as we provide more housing, we’re going to be able to identify and list more places where people cannot camp.”

Have questions about the homeless rules?

The Downtown Austin Alliance is hosing a town hall Wednesday August 21 at the Austin Convention Center.

Panelists will include:

  • Mayor Steve Adler
  • Council Member Kathie Tovo
  • Council Member Ann Kitchen
  • Council Member Greg Casar

Registration will begin at 9:30 a.m. A moderated discussion will begin at 10:00 a.m. followed by questions from the audience.

The Downtown Austin Alliance said you should RSVP to guarantee your spot.