AUSTIN (KXAN) — At a panel Wednesday discussing homelessness outreach efforts in Austin, representatives from several of the city’s leading homeless outreach groups expressed concern the ongoing pandemic will force more people into homelessness.

Each of these groups called on Austin to provide more—and more supportive—affordable housing to curb what they anticipate will be a crisis in the months to come.

The City of Austin hosted a panel Wednesday as part of its Homelessness in Austin series, which is going on now to mark National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. The discussion was hosted by Judy Maggio of Austin PBS and featured the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), The Other Ones Foundation (TOOF), Austin’s Homeless Outreach Street Team (HOST) and the city’s Office of Sustainability.

Bree Williams, Director of Community Housing for ECHO explained even before the pandemic, there was a big need in Austin to help identify and divert people who may be at risk before they enter literal homelessness. During the response to COVID-19, she said, there is an even greater need to work proactively to prevent people from becoming unhoused.

Two volunteers speak with a person experiencing homelessness during Austin’s 2020 Point in Time Count. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

“With the impending eviction crisis that we’ve all been alluding to a little bit, the need for that is even greater,” Williams continued. “We just don’t know what we are about to see—this is true of Austin, this is true of the entire country—we have no idea what we’re about to see, and our fear is that if we don’t get a system in place to identify folks who are vulnerable to homelessness, what we could see is many, many people who have never experienced homelessness in their life or in their generational life, experiencing homelessness for the first time.”

Chris Baker, executive director of The Other Ones Foundation, said, “we are all, I think, who work in this field, deathly afraid of the influx we are expecting of people into homelessness.”

TOOF offers low barrier employment to people experiencing homelessness and has recently stepped on as the primary service coordinator at the state-designated homeless encampment in Austin.

“I think the primary issue is, we have a lack of housing stock that is available to the homeless response system,” he said, adding that he believes Austin needs to improve the quality of housing that is available for people looking to exit homelessness.

Crews of people experiencing homelessness through The Other Ones Foundation help to clean up trash in a creek bed in Windsor Park. (KXAN Photo/Alyssa Goard)

Baker said he has not encountered anyone experiencing homelessness who passed up a housing opportunity that they felt was safe and stable. But in his view, people experiencing homelessness in Austin are sometimes offered housing options that are less safe and less stable than their current reality.

Baker made the case for getting “back to a place where public housing is just something that we do.” 

The roads cost a lot of money, and we all agree that we need them,” he said, continuing his argument that you don’t hear of people being “roadless.”

Patricia Barrera, the business process consultant for Austin’s Homeless Outreach Street Team (HOST) told the panel she believes “advocating for affordable housing is going to be very important.”

Homeless Outreach Street Team Members visit people experiencing homelessness in Austin. (Courtesy City of Austin).

“If we don’t have the affordable housing, it doesn’t matter what we try to do to get to people,” she continued.

Barrera said her team’s work is built on creating relationships with people experiencing homelessness in Austin, and if possible, using that relationship to connect that person with housing. She also noted those connections don’t happen by telling people what to do but rather by taking the time to build trust.

Amanda Rolich, a Food Policy Advisor with the City of Austin’s Office of Sustainability, explained the financial insecurity that is making it more difficult for Austinites to keep their housing is tied to the same reason it is now more difficult for many Austinites to put food on the table. Rolich’s office leads the Eating Apart Together (EAT) initiative the city started during COVID-19 to get food to people experiencing homelessness.

“We are seeing so many people entering into food insecurity” she said.

As of the beginning of October, Rolich explained EAT has served more than half a million meals and more than 20,000-gallon jugs of water.

food distribution the other ones foundation
An example of what was inside the original food distribution package from The Other Ones Foundation when the EAT initiative program began (Courtesy: The Other Ones Foundation)

“People are facing an uphill battle when they are both unhoused and hungry,” she said, emphasizing this uphill battle can take a toll not only on people’s physical health but their mental health as well.

Many on the panel encouraged Austinites to contact their state, local and national representatives, letting them know that helping Austin’s most vulnerable residents access supportive housing should be a priority.

Rolich argued community members should “work on advocacy for policies which will support permanent housing and affordable housing for all. “

Next panel discussion

The next panel discussion in this series will happen Friday, Nov. 20 at noon and feature representatives from Mobile Loaves and Fishes, Family Eldercare, UT School of Pharmacy and the City of Austin.