Is Austin’s homeless problem really that bad? How the numbers and resources compare

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — A spotlight is now on Austin after Governor Greg Abbott gave the city’s mayor an ultimatum. Abbott said if Austin doesn’t reduce problems related to homelessness by November 1, the state will intervene.

According to “Point in Time” counts conducted every year, Austin’s homelessness has been increasing. In 2015, 1,832 were experiencing homelessness on a given day. In 2018, 2,147 people didn’t have a place to call home, and in 2019, that number rose to 2,255, which represents a 5 percent increase.

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

That’s a much smaller increase than in Dallas. Texas Homeless Network said Dallas experienced a 10 percent increase, from 4,140 people in 2018 to 4,538 in 2019.

Austin, however, keeps getting compared to its neighbor 90 minutes south.

“Overall, the number of homelessness has drifted downward, despite our population increasing,” said San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg while speaking at the “Gimme Shelter” panel at the 2019 Texas Tribune Festival.

Texas Homeless Network’s data shows San Antonio saw a 6 percent decrease recently.

  • 3,066 homeless people in 2018
  • 2,872 homeless people in 2019

San Antonio’s resource center, Haven for Hope, cost about $101 million to build. More than half of it came from private donors.

“The new iteration of how we handle homelessness services began in the mid-2000s when really, it was the business community,” said Nirenberg. “[They] approached the city administration, then mayor, and said they wanted to be part of the solution.”

Just eight years ago, Houston had more than 8,000 people who were homeless. According to their “Point in Time” count, the number decreased dramatically between 2011 and 2016.

A recent report said Houston saw a 54 percent decrease in overall homelessness since 2011.

“The reality is none of us wants to go to work, step outside our home, go to our coffee shop and see someone experiencing the horrible fact that is homelessness,” said Eva Thibaudeau, Chief Executive Officer of Temenos CDC, at the TribFest panel.

Mayor Adler said, “In the period of time from 2008 to last year, Houston with financial resources from the federal government received more than $20 million every year.”

Thibaudeau said, in 2011 and 2012, Houston changed the way it tackled homelessness. She explained, with the help of the federal funding, “we started reaching out to people who were the most vulnerable. We started going out to the streets, going to them and navigate them to housing.”

In Austin, Front Steps operates the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH) downtown. Executive Director Greg McCormack told KXAN Austin hasn’t had as many resources as San Antonio or Houston to work on reducing homelessness.

“We get very little from the state. By and large, the majority of our funding for our ARCH shelter is the city,” he said.

While homeless camping remains banned in places like public parks, libraries and private properties, the Austin City Council did make some changes over the summer and decriminalized camping in most public places.

McCormack said, “It didn’t create any more people that are homeless, but what it’s done is raise awareness of it.”

He said now that more people are talking about the issue of homelessness, “We need resources. Solving homelessness takes money. It takes focus. I think we’ve got the focus now and need the dollars and support to come.”

Right now, the ARCH is changing its model, transitioning from being an emergency shelter to a place where case managers can help connect people to housing.

Less than one percent of the state budget helps Austin with homelessness, but now that the spotlight is on, McCormack said, “We’ve got to look at the state. We have to look at the federal government. We have to look at private donations. I think we’ve got to look at bigger, grander solutions.”

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