Federal relief funds present ‘historic’ opportunity to address homelessness in Austin

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — When Barbara Poppe, a nationally-respected homelessness policy consultant, issued her report for the City of Austin last June, she didn’t pull punches.

“What we saw in our evaluation was that the approach to addressing homelessness was very fragmented,” Poppe told KXAN on Thursday. “[Austin] has focused much more on a variety of crisis activities as opposed to having a cohesive re-housing approach that really gets folks off the streets.”

But Poppe was pleased to see a goal to house 3,000 people experiencing homelessness in three years emerge from a community summit of political leaders and advocates in March. Austin City Council will vote to officially adopt the plan later this month.

While the plan comes with a $300 million funding gap, Austin and Travis County stand to receive a combined half-billion dollars in federal pandemic relief funds, some of which can be directed to homeless services.

“You have a historic opportunity, because there is so much new money coming from Washington through these various pandemic funding streams that you can mobilize that resource to solve the number one problem you have in your community,” Poppe said.

Austin City Council voted Thursday to accept $98 million from the American Rescue Plan — the first of two payments Austin will get from the legislation passed by Congress. Of that, more than half could potentially be used for homeless services.

The council would need to appropriate the funds for homeless services in the future.

“This is the moment if our city really wants to fundamentally do something about homelessness in this community,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said. “We need to act.”

Travis County Judge Andy Brown said he hopes to use federal relief funds to improve mental and behavioral health services to keep people out of jail, but he looks forward to seeing funding proposals from the homelessness summit to see what role the county will play in meeting the ambitious goal.

“I think all of my colleagues on the Commissioner’s Court are also interested in seeing exact details about funding proposals,” Brown said.

With a new public camping ban taking effect in Austin on Tuesday, Poppe said leaders need to focus on urgently scaling permanent supportive housing options.

“You have a citizenry that wants to do the right thing. I think there’s a lot of compassion toward those experiencing homelessness, but you gotta put that compassion into action,” she said.

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