Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect that 36% of the homeless community in Austin-Travis County is Black.
AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin Justice Coalition recently revealed the results of its #WeFund budget tool, which asked the community to give its preferences for Austin’s 2021 budget.
According to AJC on Monday, the tool yielded about 1,500 local, unique responses from across the county since it was launched at the end of June.
This tool was created by Austin Justice Coalition, Just Liberty, the Texas Fair Defense Project, and Texas Appleseed after these groups expressed dissatisfaction with the limitations of the budget input tool the city released to the public.
The Austin City Council heard from more than 400 people Thursday in the first of two public input meetings about the budget. A majority of those who spoke discussed police funding and reforms to the department. The Black Austinite Coalition, which formed in the wake of protests over the death of George Floyd and others, has recently requested allocations in Austin’s budget that support Black businesses, Black infrastructure and resources to help Black Austinites succeed economically.
Responses found 95.8% support divesting from the Austin Police Department budget.
The desired cut amount from APD’s budget, based on the survey, is just more than $235.6 million — or 54.48% of the department’s 2019 budget.
Additionally, 91.1% of those who used the tool support decreasing the number of Austin police officers on the force.
During a virtual meeting sharing these results, AJC reiterated that the desire to take money away from APD’s budget was not simply to reduce police funding, but to funnel that money elsewhere — in ways they say will aid public safety outside of policing.
Where did participants say the money should go?
According to the results, respondents wanted to see the money funneled from APD to help increase Austin Public Health’s budget by a little more than $36 million.
Of those surveyed, 79.6% support harm reduction investments.
Joy Rucker, co-founder of the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, explained that “harm reduction” programs are social justice initiatives that aim to elevate the “dignity of those who use drugs” and help aid them into recovery and better life situations overall.
“Harm reduction,” Rucker said, decreases overdoses, decreases HIV infections, causes fewer interactions with the criminal legal system, less medical care and more housing.
The additional funding would help the alliance expand its operating hours and expand drop-in centers as well as efforts through a mobile outreach clinic.
“We know that there are thousands of unnecessary drug-related arrests that happen in our community,” said Cate Gaziani, of the alliance. “We also know that our police force is not willing to carry naloxone — an overdose reversal drug. I think harm reduction could actually help us make a culture shift when it comes to drug use. A public health approach, instead of a criminal, legal approach.”
The average housing budget increase proposed by respondents was nearly $43 million.
Additionally, 79% of those who used the tool support investments to end homelessness.
“We’re looking at massive investments in permanent support of housing, which is housing that has rental assistance and supportive services attached to it,” Matt Mollica, executive director of Austin ECHO said.
These services also include harm reduction services, Mollica said.
The plan Mollica is referring to would allow people in need of housing to find it, regardless of criminal history, substance abuse history, or mental health history.
Mollica says in the current budget ECHO is asking for about 250 units to be created for rapid rehousing, which is a shorter-term version of finding permanent housing.
He explained that in January, it was estimated that 1,500 people were currently homeless in Austin, but that he knows the number is much higher than that.
According to ECHO, about 36% of the homeless population in Austin is Black.
The organization says in a gap report that Black Travis County residents are “disproportionately represented” in the homeless population.
“We also know that many — if not most — have had recent interactions with police and that continues to prevent them accessing quality, affordable health care and housing that they need.”
The respondents also called for $800,000 for diversion services, which help people in need in single instances — for example, avoiding entering homelessness.
EMS and mental health first response
Attendees at AJC’s virtual meeting revealing these responses noted that there are incidents in Austin where police presence may not be needed, one example being overdoses.
An EMS representative said that it’s often a concern that if police show up to scenes of overdoses, that victims will be arrested once EMS crews have treated them with the Narcan anti-overdose drug.
Another example where the representative says police may not be needed is welfare checks and mental health calls. The EMS representative said that “90% of our calls” are not emergencies, but “instances of poverty.” This includes people who need money to take a taxi to the ER or urgent clinic, for instance.
Mental health first response is a key area where ATC EMS is pushing for additional funding in this year’s proposed budget.
“Austin, unfortunately, has shot a lot of mentally ill people,” said an EMS representative. “And I don’t say that lightly — it remains a shocking truth that when people call in mental health crisis, they sometimes get a far too aggressive police response. And it has been very harmful.”
The average respondent to the AJC tool requested an increase of $19.1 million in funding for ATCEMS and 72.9% of those surveyed say they support mental health first response.
Violence prevention and survivor support
Amber Goodwin, who is the founding director of the Community Justice Action Fund and a member of Austin’s Violence Task Force, explained in the virtual meeting where funding could be allocated to in terms of violence prevention and support for survivors.
Goodwin explained that since the task force’s creation last year, it has focused on how to reduce gun violence in Austin in all forms.
“We need to make sure we are treating the disease of gun violence like a disease, instead of utilizing the criminal-legal approach that has specifically been the main focus in Austin,” Goodwin said.
The task force is currently proposing a plan that would tackle a few major areas of concern in Austin.
The office would ask for $25 million over the next five years — or $5 million per year — to:
- Create an Office of Violence Prevention, which helps connect people with services and also work with other organizations that help prevent violence, like EMS and other survivor support groups. Goodwin believes that this office should be independent of APD.
- Contract with a group or person to help with mapping out the city to determine where gun violence in Austin is happening and who it’s affecting. This information would also be independent of APD, Goodwin said.
- Investment in evidence-based strategies to improve safety for communities and working to meet the needs of survivors of gun violence.
Of respondents to the survey, 90% support the creation of this violence prevention department and on average allocated $46.8 million to the department.
Other ideas receiving support
Users who utilized the AJC tool also indicated large support for other areas not listed above, including more funding/resources for public schools, the Office of Police Oversight and public transportation.
Proposed 2021 APD budget vs. the #WeFund APD budget
In the 2021 proposed APD budget, the department would get $434.3 million, in the #WeFund Budget, APD would get $197.7 million.
The 2021 proposed budget also gives:
- $8 million less to Parks and Recreation than WeFund
- $15 million less to EMS than WeFund
- $33 million less to public health than WeFund
- $7 million less to public libraries than WeFund
- $34 million less to housing and community development than WeFund
- $47 million less to violence prevention/survivor support than WeFund
To view the entirety of these results, download the file below.