Austin's homeless population rising in 2018 as city endorses new plan

AUSTIN (KXAN) - The city of Austin saw a five percent increase in people experiencing homelessness between January of 2017 and 2018 according to new city data released Thursday. 

On Jan. 27, the city conducted its annual "Point-In-Time" count to document the number of people who are unsheltered and homeless in Austin, counting people not just on the street but also in cars, tents, parks and under bridges. 

Those numbers were combined with the count of people staying in transitional housing. In total, they identified 2,147 people in Austin experiencing homelessness. Additionally, the number of people in 2018 sleeping unsheltered on the streets was 1,014, the highest of all the last 8 years. 

While the number is an increase, Austin's total homeless population has hovered around 2,000 for the last decade, explained Ann Howard, executive director of Ending Community Homelessness Coalition or ECHO.

Howard and the coalition of advocacy groups she works with believe it will take at least $30 million each year to cover the services and beds that Austin's homeless need.

After a concerted push by the city and community groups over the last year to try new strategies in addressing crime, services and funding near the downtown homeless population, the city now has data on the number of people downtown who have been housed, who are enrolled in services and those who are still in need of housing. 

City council leaders acknowledge there are not enough beds for all the people who need to be housed.

Thursday city leaders approved an endorsement of Austin's Action Plan to Address Homelessness,   which Howard described as a blueprint for how this network of public and private partners will move forward.

It's based on a variety data from public and private community partners who've pooled together information about what works and what doesn't.

The plan has been gaining momentum since Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo partnered with ECHO in 2017 to address "the crisis of homelessness" in Austin.

It makes recommendations for a long-term plan to address homelessness in Austin and for making the smartest investments that will create the greatest impact. 

"We can sort of assign homework to the different parts of the community to get us all working together to make a difference," Howard explained. 

Council members also directed the city manager to provide regular updates about how Austin is doing with meeting those recommendations. 

Howard said this plan will allow them to plan out necessary services, but they still don't have the funding to supply all the beds and services that are needed. 

The city is spending more than $33 million this fiscal year on services for the homeless, most of that is going to Austin Public Health, which gives grants and helps people in shelters. The funding also goes to Community Court, APD's Homeless Outreach Street Team, the Pay for Success Program and Neighborhood Housing. 

"We're treading water and we need to identify new resources," Howard said. 

They're working to find private partners, especially landowners and property owners who are willing to help. The city may also be able to turn to federal funding and the November bond election for assistance as well.

The city has already partnered with 25 land and property owners to house those who were formerly homeless. 

"How do we welcome in renters who have been homeless? And I think that's really a call to action for this community to be better neighbors, to be more welcoming of neighbors that maybe don't have the same background," Howard said. 

Jo Kathryn Quinn, the executive director of Caritas of Austin, says in her years of watching homelessness progress in Austin, the city council now is doing something very different.

"The leadership at the city, the mayor and the city council are leading on this issue, and this is significant and this is encouraging," Quinn said. 

Though she's optimistic, she notes the amount of homelessness in the area where Caritas is located has stayed largely the same. 

 At Caritas of Austin, they operate under a goal: to shorten the distance as much as they can for everyone experiencing homelessness between their current situation and permanent housing. Quinn hopes that's a goal the city can strive for as well. 

"If we can reach out as a fellow human being and show that compassion, that is what ending homelessness is all about," Quinn said. 

At Thursday's council meeting, attendees were surprised by an unexpected speaker: a man who had been homeless in Austin just 5 years earlier. 

"I was one of those people who was downtown, I was down there for a year, and through Caritas, through Foundation Communities I got help, I've been housed now going on four years due to the  process of the city, I feel what y'all are doing is good," Gregory Williams said to the council.

He also shared that these support services helped him overcome addiction and secure transitional housing over the last four years. 

Williams wanted to send the message that these programs are working, but they need to be given more care, more resources and more caseworkers. 

"There are more people who want help, but at the same time, they need more resources, they need to feel like they belong to something, they need to feel like somebody cares about them because without that it won't be successful," Williams said, adding that when he talks to people downtown near Austin's Resource Center for the Homeless, many feel there are not enough resources to help them. 

"When you look at when all these things come together, I'm a success to a certain extent, I'm not where I want to be but I'm not where I used to be either," Williams told the council. 

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