Consultants call for more organized, less punitive response to homelessness in Austin

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — According to several national experts on homelessness, Austin needs more organized efforts to end homelessness.

Tuesday, Austin City Council received a presentation from consultants Barbara Poppe, Matthew White and Matthew Doherty. Their recommendations called for more low-barrier services, reducing the criminalization of homelessness and getting all entities in Austin in sync when it comes to their strategy to address homelessness.

The consultants noted that unsheltered homelessness, the most visible form of homelessness, has been on the rise in Austin for the past five years. As Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) has noted, overall numbers of people experiencing homelessness counted during their Point in Time Count each year have remained relatively proportional to the overall Austin-Travis County population. However, the consultants pointed out over the past five years the count data shows an increase in the number of unsheltered, single individuals living in Austin.

A slide from the consultants’ presentation before Austin City Council depicts rates of homelessness indicated during Point in Time Counts since 2015.

To reduce those numbers, the consultants said Austin needs to reduce the number of people falling into homelessness, offer more short-term crisis support, offer more services to get people stabilized into housing over the long-term and make public spaces more inclusive for people experiencing homelessness. Additionally, the consultants said Austin needs to do a better job of engaging single adults in homeless services.

The consultants told the council it is possible to make homelessness “rare, brief and nonrecurring” in Austin, but all of those recommended pieces must be in place for that to happen.

Poppe and White spoke to the council about their report, which analyzed how the city is working to end homelessness.

Doherty gave an update on the new “P3” homelessness task force, which is made up of a variety of public and private partners in Austin. He said this group has been meeting over the past few months and will be meeting weekly starting Wednesday. So far, this group includes the City of Austin, ECHO, Downtown Austin Alliance, Caritas of Austin, Front Steps, Integral Care, LifeWorks and Salvation Army.

Doherty was the director for the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness from 2015 to 2019. He was reported to have been pushed out of the role in Nov. 2019. President Donald Trump instead appointed Robert Marbut, who did not have the same housing first-focused approach Doherty did, to the position.

Poppe formerly served as the director of the USICH as well.

These consultants were hired months prior to the pandemic and have visited Austin to meet with key players when it comes to homelessness response.

Who’s in charge?

The Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), which is a nonprofit separate from the city, serves as the “lead agency that plans and implements community-wide strategies to end homelessness in Austin and Travis County.” ECHO leads the Point in Time Count each year and is in charge of maintaining Austin’s portion of the federally-required database on people experiencing homelessness.

Separately, the city of Austin has its own efforts and strategies to address homelessness across many departments, especially as homelessness has been identified as a top priority by the council in recent years. Austin Public Health has a homeless services division and provides funding to other groups who provide homeless services and shelters. Additionally, there are shelters, nonprofits, and other community organizations involved in trying to end homelessness in Austin as well.

“No one entity was responsible for comprehensively managing or crafting the response to homelessness,” the consultants surmised, comparing Austin’s current system to a “bowl of spaghetti.”

A slide from the consultants’ presentation to Austin City Council on August 4 shows a graphical representation of the current, less organized model of homeless response in Austin transforming into the model the consultants recommend.

Matt Mollica, executive director of ECHO, says he supports the consultants’ recommendations and acknowledges that for people who sleep on Austin’s streets, trying to find help might feel like wading through a bowl of spaghetti.

“I think for people experiencing homelessness, that can a lot of times be the feeling of ‘what do you mean it’s this program? What do you mean I have to go over here?’ and ‘is it this form of ID and these documents you need to enroll?'”

Inclusive public spaces

The consultants also called for the city to make public spaces more inclusive and to not further criminalize homelessness. Decriminalizing homelessness was the intent of the council’s action more than a year ago to repeal prior bans on camping, sitting and lying down in public. Recently, a petition effort has sought to reinstate that ban on public camping, and city staff members are currently tallying the completed signatures to determine whether it meets the threshold to go on the ballot.

The consultants advised rather than trying to “move people along” somewhere else when they can be seen experiencing homelessness in public, that the city instead offers regular trash pickup and connections to services at encampments. When people are forced to move from their encampments, the consultants said, they lose belongings and things like IDs, which then make it harder for them to regain stability.

Poppe also cautioned the city, noting that pickups of trash at encampments need to be in response to the health of the people staying there, not the number of calls the city is getting. Simply responding to calls about people reporting encampments creates a “whack-a-mole” response that doesn’t address the real issues the people in those encampments are facing, she told the council.

Additionally, she advised the council that it is important for Austin to have an agreed upon protocol across all departments for how to address encampments that pose a “serious and significant danger to those who are unsheltered.”

Mollica explained to KXAN that while forcing people to move from their encampments can cause them further harm, having regular trash pickups near encampment sites can help afford people living there a sense of dignity.

“When you’re talking about what the response should look like and how the city should help, we have to be engaging with people and asking them what they need to make their unsheltered encampments safer or to help them resolve their homelessness,” Mollica explained.

Additional investments

A slide from the consultants’ presentation to Austin City Council on August 4 shows funds the consultants recommend the city invest in addressing homelessness over the next two years.

The consultants presented a plan for the city to spend nearly $20 million in the next two years to address homelessness, which would include 200 additional units of rapid rehousing and 500 new permanent supportive housing units for single youth and adults.

A slide from the consultants’ presentation to Austin City Council on August 4 shows the funds the consultants recommend the city invest in addressing homelessness over the next two years.

The consultants also recommended the city spend more than $2 million on addressing homelessness in families, including 50 rapid rehousing units and 10 units of permanent supportive housing for families experiencing homelessness in Austin over the next two years.

Upon questions from council members, Assistant City Manager Chris Shorter said he was not sure how much of that $20 million dollar recommendation is already in the city’s proposed budget.

Council Member Ann Kitchen also told the staff she wants to see the city make progress toward the goal of investing the $20 million during the city’s budget process that is playing out this month.

Mollica noted that he is hoping the council makes additional amendments to the budget in these coming weeks to ensure that these efforts to address homelessness can sustain.

The city’s investment in homelessness is important, the consultants noted. The city is the largest investor in addressing homelessness in Austin, pointing out the city’s dollars more than double federal resources.

A slide from the consultants’ presentation to Austin City Council on August 4 shows funding sources for efforts to address homelessness in Austin.

Already in the city’s proposed budget are additional dollars to invest in the city’s strategy of using hotels and motels to help address the needs of people experiencing homelessness.

Austin Public Health currently has four “protective lodges” — converted hotels designed to offer shelter for at-risk individuals experiencing homelessness during the pandemic. The city says a fifth “ProLodge” is expected to start taking guests this week, bringing the total number of ProLodge rooms up to 546.

As of Tuesday, Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden said those ProLodges are housing a total of 300 people. From those ProLodges, she said, 17 people have exited and moved into permanent housing.

Rosie Truelove, director of the city’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department said the city achieved its vision of a hotel/motel conversion strategy by acquiring the Rodeway Inn last fall. Truelove said the city “is continuing to move forward with acquiring more properties for this purpose,” and council was briefed on something related to this during their closed executive session on Tuesday.

City staff indicated the intent is to keep the Rodeway Inn as “transitional lodging” through the pandemic and beyond. Originally, the vision of the Rodeway Inn was for it to be an emergency homeless shelter coordinated by ECHO, which would eventually transition into permanent supportive housing.

Mollica said ECHO fully supports this hotel/motel conversion strategy and is willing to coordinate operations at one of these converted shelters for the city if another service provider can’t be identified.

“We’ve talked about reimagining public safety, and there’s a whole discussion around the police budget and looking into those areas,” Mollica said. “For us, it’s just reimagining what an investment in a healthy community looks like.”

“What I think COVID has taught us is that we’re really only as healthy as the most vulnerable in our community,” he continued. “And until we can help bring those resources to people in those situations, we are in a public health crisis, it doesn’t matter if COVID’s over or not.”

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