AUSTIN (KXAN) — U.S. Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson traveled to Austin Wednesday afternoon for a roundtable discussing the federal response to homelessness.

Carson, who was appointed to that position by President Donald Trump and has led the department since 2017, was joined at the roundtable by:

  • U.S. Congressional Representative Chip Roy (TX-21) who is currently running for re-election
  • Dr. Robert Marbut, who was appointed by President Trump in December as executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH)
  • Alan Graham the founder and CEO of outreach ministry Mobile Loaves and Fishes who operates the Community First! Village master-planned community to house people experiencing homelessness in Travis County
  • Kevin Roberts, Ph.D., the executive director of the Austin-based conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF)
  • Michael Burley, the HUD Region 6 Administrator

This event came days after USICH, which works with 19 different federal agencies on addressing homelessness, released a new strategic plan federal leaders say aims to focus on a “self-sufficiency” response to reduce homelessness.

Notably, this new plan criticizes the Housing First strategy the federal government has used since 2013 as a “one-size-fits-all approach,” claiming that Housing First “has not worked to reduce homelessness for all populations and communities. Housing First aims to get people experiencing homelessness housed quickly without preconditions and barriers to entry, like sobriety, treatment, or service participation.

The Housing First principle is currently a cornerstone of both the city of Austin’s approach to homelessness and to the approaches used by key Austin service providers such as the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO).

(KXAN/Alyssa Goard)

KXAN covered Marbut’s last public visit to Austin which was at an event hosted by TPPF. In interviews at that meeting, Marbut expressed a desire to shift away from a Housing First-focused approach to addressing homelessness which the agency he leads has used since 2013.

Marbut’s approach differs from that of his predecessor, Matthew Doherty, who was appointed in 2015 during President Obama’s administration and was reported to have been pushed out of the role in November 2019. Doherty has worked with the city of Austin this year as a consultant on the city’s response to homelessness.

Doherty was quoted in 2019 encouraging people to, “resist bogus arguments that a focus on Housing First imposes a one-size-fits-all solution on people or programs.”

“We can speak the real truth that Housing First approaches are the opposite of one-size-fits-all and help ensure that we don’t leave anyone behind,” Doherty said.

At the same event where Doherty spoke in 2019, HUD Secretary Ben Carson said, “I like to follow the evidence and the evidence then and now supports much of the work that has been done here and supports Housing First.”

“The fact of the matter is, it costs a lot less to house someone than to leave someone on the streets,” Carson said that time.

Austin city leaders respond to roundtable

Austin City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan told KXAN city leaders weren’t notified about the roundtable being held in Austin or invited to be part of the discussion. Mayor Steve Adler’s office confirmed the same.

“I’m not going to guess why the Trump Administration decided to exclude the Austin City Council or the mayor from participating in this conversation, but ultimately, I don’t trust their ability to address any problems, whatsoever,” Flannigan said.

He says he feels housing is necessary to address many of the issues that perpetuate homelessness.

“It’s incredibly short sighted to think that we can solve homelessness merely by addressing a couple of food programs and a couple of supportive housing programs on the back end,” Flannigan said. “In fact, by not addressing the causes of homelessness, you exacerbate the more expensive solutions you need at the end. While the federal government might be spending a few extra dollars on food programs and stuff on the back end, they have dramatically cut funding on housing programs and affordable housing on the front end, and that is the reason that homelessness increases while spending on the back end also increases.”

In a statement, Council Member Greg Casar also addressed what he feels are shortfalls in federal funding.

“Housing First works to end homelessness if we invest in it properly, but federal and state officials have spent decades disinvesting in homelessness response systems,” Casar said.

Casar’s statement went on to say, “This is an issue to be solved, not erased. Housing is a human right, and we need state and national investment to ensure all Austinites have access to affordable health care, equitable education, and affordable housing. Any roundtable discussion should focus on Housing First policies that will help our neighbors experiencing homelessness.”

One non-profit leader who’s combatting homelessness locally, Alan Graham, was on the panel.

Graham runs Mobile Loaves and Fishes, which houses people in its Community First! Village in northeast Travis County outside the city limits. The nonprofit’s 51-acre plot entered Phase II of its project in August. At the time, it was housing people in 130 micro homes. The plan in Phase II is to build a few hundred more, making a total of 500 micro plots with homes on them.

In Wednesday’s roundtable, Graham emphasized his organization is providing true homes, not just housing for those who were formerly homeless.

“It’s terrific that Alan Graham is on the panel, because he certainly has a model that has worked well and that’s achieving success,” said Austin City Council Member Kathie Tovo. “We also have other wonderful housing providers who have helped us effectively end homelessness among veterans, Life Works and other organizations that are working to end youth homelessness and are doing so with great success. It would have been great to see a range of a range of providers on that panel to provide context for the conversation.”

The leader of Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition says his organization was not invited or involved in the roundtable.

“I’m not sure why they came to Austin in the first place if it wasn’t to involve the community in this work,” Matt Mollica said.

He added his organization receives seven times more in funding from the city than the federal government, highlighting the importance of involving local leaders.

Council members stress Austin’s approach has and should continue to be a wraparound approach to housing and services.

“Housing First as it’s implemented in Austin has never been housing only. Those individuals who are living in Housing First units are receiving social services, medical services,” Tovo said. “Every individual who is experiencing homelessness may be facing a different set of challenges, and so the response needs to be different. How we approach homelessness among youth, how we approach homelessness among veterans and how we approach homelessness among families with children has to be different because their needs are going to be different. Funding opportunities are different. The other types of resources that they need to benefit from might be different.”

In a statement, Council Member Natasha Harper Madison’s office offered statistics:

“Since 2017, Central Texas has seen a 5% increase in homelessness. Integral Care, using the Housing First model, since 2013, has seen a 71% reduction in inpatient psychiatric hospital stays, 20% fewer in-patient medical hospital stays, and 51% fewer days spent incarcerated and with those reductions come millions of dollars of taxpayer money.”