Austin’s Homeless Outreach Street Team to get more funding, new position

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin City Council has approved additional funding for the Homeless Outreach Street Team (HOST) to go into effect Sept. 1. 

The increase of $195,000 will cover the cost of a certified peer specialist/peer recovery coach and allow more funding to address immediate needs, like obtaining official ID documents and bus passes.

The HOST team works downtown to connect homeless individuals with services necessary to get back on their feet and achieve stability and recovery. This could be through medical or behavioral care, case management and housing. 

A peer specialist is someone who’s walked in their shoes and can also address the needs of those with mental health conditions or substance abuse disorders. The idea is to hire someone who is certified now but was once homeless themselves. The peer specialist will be hired through Integral Care. 

KXAN spoke with one of Integral Care’s current peer specialists who says he’s experienced depression, mania, psychosis, hallucination — and can get people to open up because of that understanding. 

“Myself, I have lived experience with mental illness, I was diagnosed about 11 years ago,” Bill Newcomb said. “For me personally, I want to help people like myself. I had my life totally turned upside down when I was diagnosed, went through a divorce, ended a very successful career in the computer field.” 

The HOST team is a partnership between Integral Care, the Austin Police Department, Emergency Medical Services, Downtown Austin Community Court and the Downtown Austin Alliance. 

“It’s been just over 2 years and people ask us all the time, ‘Do you guys think you’re doing any good, do you think you’re making a difference?’ And I do. I do think that we are,” Austin Police Department Officer Shelley Borton said. “But like I said, it’s just — it’s really hard to see when you drive through the streets of Austin or you see people on corners or living under bridges.” 

Borton says it feels like for every person they help another comes in. 

“We constantly have an influx of people moving to Austin from other cities. I met people from Nashville yesterday that came here specifically because of the homeless services,” Borton said. 

Jesse Valdez, who is currently homeless and faces challenges with his mental health said, “I just want to be able to, you know, feed myself and get where I want to get so I don’t have to be begging nobody for money… I’m trying to get my own place to live. You know, I don’t want to be in the streets forever.” 

The HOST team was able to help Valdez obtain a security card an ID, crucial to getting housing. 

“These are things that can prevent people from getting the care that they need,” Chris Laguna, with Integral Care said. 

She went on to explain how the addition of a peer specialist will make a difference in caring for their homeless clients. 

“It’s that unique perspective of that shared experience of homelessness that would help them be able to really make an impact and really enhance the work that the HOST team is already doing,” Laguna said.

Borton echoed the thought, telling KXAN, “As much experience as we all have in dealing with mental illness and homelessness and everything that comes with it, we don’t live it. So when you get somebody that’s a peer and has actually gone through it and successfully gotten themselves out of homelessness or gotten themselves out of a mental crisis, and have become stable, that’s somebody I think they can really relate to people that we’re dealing with.” 

While there’s been a desire to expand the HOST team beyond downtown, that is not included in this round of funding. 

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