AUSTIN (KXAN) — Around 700 volunteers worked from 3 a.m. until the sun rose on Saturday in an effort to find out how many people experience homelessness in Austin on any given night.
“I think the fact that we’ve exceeded 700 volunteers for this count is indicative of the city’s readiness to change the game here and put enough resources on the ground here so we can really solve homelessness,” said Ann Howard, the executive director of Austin’s Ending Community Homeless Coalition (ECHO).
This was part of the annual Point in Time (PIT) count conducted by ECHO. Cities around the country do these counts in January, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires the count for cities to be eligible for federal funding to address homelessness.
Many companies, nonprofits, students and community partners participated in the count. Public officials volunteered too, including Austin Mayor Steve Adler as well as city council members Kathie Tovo, Ann Kitchen and Paige Ellis.
Before this event, team leaders went and mapped out Travis County, highlighting spots where they believed homeless individuals were most likely to be found. Teams covered areas all across the county, identifying Austin’s homeless and offering them supplies and hygiene kits.
KXAN got to walk along with one of these groups as they counted near West 5th and underneath MoPac. The group identified four homeless individuals in that area, a smaller number than during the count last year.
This count comes after two years of concerted effort from the city and the Austin community to address what advocates call the “public health and safety crisis” of homelessness. Those efforts have included rearranging services for those experiencing homelessness, increased assistance from law enforcement, improvements in lighting and access to bathrooms and public-private partnerships to test out new ideas such as a mobile healthcare unit. Last year, Austin City Council members identified addressing homelessness in the city as their top priority.
Ann Howard with ECHO explained that the issue of homelessness goes hand-in-hand with affordable housing in Austin.
“We are poised to make a difference, the voters passed the affordable housing bond [in 2018], we need to make sure that money is accessible to people of all different experiences,” Howard said.
In the past two years, Austin organizations that help the homeless have made progress in identifying many of the chronically homeless individuals sleeping on the streets. However, those same organizations have also expressed that there is not enough short term and long term housing to offer all of the homeless individuals who say they are interested.
“In a given year, we might assess 7,000 individuals or households that need help, but only have the resources for 2,000,” Howard said. “So we really need to double the amount of money we have to get folks off the street and stabilized.”
She explained that organizations like hers which help Austin’s homeless are in need of more apartments and duplexes for people to rent as well as nonprofit programs to help get people into housing.
“And the City Council is looking for other funding streams [to address homelessness], Travis County is looking at their policies and practices that could help expedite recourses to end homelessness, so we need the community to know its solvable, and we need to get working on the solutions,” she added.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler was part of the group walking along near MoPac and West 5th Street. He explained that the Austin City Council has made addressing homelessness a high priority because so many members of the public have told their council members they want to see more done about it.
“A community is judged by how it treats the least fortunate among them, I think,” Adler said.
“And I think people in our community — in a community where so many things are going well for so many people — are really taking stock of the advantages and gifts and blessings that we have and [trying] to do what we can for folks who are not sharing in the same way,” he continued.
The mayor added that homelessness is also becoming more visible in Austin, in addition to the many people sleeping on the streets downtown near Austin’s Resource Center for the Homeless, the city is seeing more people setting up larger camps in other parts of the city too.
Adler noted that he had recently returned from the United States Conference of Mayors where he talked with mayors of many other cities about homelessness.
“There are cities that are having way more serious challenges with this then we are,” he said, “and it’s a cautionary tale.”
Adler believes what is different in Austin is that Austin is at a tipping point where there’s lots of momentum behind addressing homelessness and where there are still opportunities to turn the tide.
“I do feel kind of an expectation in the community that something big is going to happen now, and I think the community needs to keep that pressure on to make sure that happens,” he said.
During the count, Adler encountered a homeless man he’d met at the same spot last year, Stephen Blair.
The two bonded over having the same first name.
Adler asked Blair what he needs help with the most.
Blair said housing. As a chef by trade, Blair said he just wants a place where he can stay and cook his own food.
Blair currently sleeps under a bridge beneath MoPac, he has been homeless in Austin on and off for the past 22 years.
But Blair is struggling to get housing because he doesn’t have an ID (it was in his backpack which was stolen). After losing his ID, Blair said the restaurant he was working in told him he couldn’t work for them until he got a new one because he wasn’t “on the record.”
He also can’t look for housing until he gets an ID.
So Blair said he worked with Trinity Church to obtain a birth certificate which is on his way to him via mail (he needed the church’s help because mail doesn’t get delivered to the bridge he lives beneath). Once Blair’s birth certificate arrives, he will take the $16 he has been saving in order to get a state ID.
“So next year this time maybe I’ll visit you in your apartment?” Adler asked Blair.
“I’ll cook you a good meal,” Blair said to Adler. “I’ll cook all of you a good meal,” Blair said to all the volunteers.
Volunteer Brendan Wittstruck said what stood out to him about doing the count was, “just how diverse this population of people experiencing homelessness is.”
“And it’s kind of lazy, looking back on this, to think of [the homeless] as a monolithic group of people,” Wittstruck said while walking near West 5th Street. “The circumstances we experience here and under MoPac, people trying to make a life for themselves are very different from what you’re going to see at parts of downtown.”
The 2018 count documented a five percent increase in people experiencing homelessness. According to those numbers, 2,147 people experience homelessness in Austin on any given night. Additionally, the number of people in 2018 sleeping unsheltered on the streets was 1,014, the highest of all the last eight years.
The results of this year’s count likely won’t be available for a few more months as the results are calibrated and analyzed.
Last year, Austin was awarded five million dollars in HUD money to address getting people age 18-25 housed, that amount of money is renewable as long as the data shows it’s working.
Susan McDowell, the executive director of LifeWorks in Austin, explained that while 20 years ago her organization, which offers support for young people experiencing homelessness, saw many young people who had run away from home or were bouncing from shelter to shelter. Now, she said that of the young homeless individuals Life Works assists, more and more of them are homeless directly as a result of systems that did not prepare them to live as adults. Now, 78% of youth they see have been in foster care of the juvenile justice system.
“And the results of the count this year, directly impact both policy nationally around homelessness, but also the funding that our community gets for Life Works youth services,” she said.
Alyssa Goard walked with a group as they conducted the count, watch her experience tonight on KXAN News.