AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (known as ECHO) has finished crunching the numbers for Austin’s 2020 Point in Time Count, the census of those experiencing homelessness in the community.

ECHO is the agency charged with leading Austin-Travis County’s efforts to end homelessness and to gather the required federal data for the region related to homelessness, such as this count.

Roman Halizew, who was experiencing homelessness in Austin, speaks with KXAN on January 25, 2020 during Austin’s Point in Time Count. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

In January, ECHO dispatched 886 volunteers to walk through different areas of Austin and Travis County in the early hours of the morning to count the number of people experiencing homelessness. If the people volunteers encountered were willing to participate, they would be asked a few survey questions too.

The Point in Time Count this year shows an 11% increase in overall homelessness over last year and a 45% increase in unsheltered homelessness. ECHO does not believe that these increases are the product of some kind of surge of people falling into homelessness, but rather a more accurate count enabled by more volunteers and better technology. The Point in Time Count numbers, when compared to Travis County’s population, have stayed at around 0.2% per capita over the past decade, ECHO explained.

The Point in Time Count is not meant to reflect the total number of people experiencing homelessness, but rather it offers a snapshot of what homelessness looked like in Austin on one January night. That snapshot is necessary for the Austin area to apply for federal dollars related to homelessness, and it is also useful for comparisons in making programs and policies.

Volunteers for Austin’s 2020 Point in Time Count walk through downtown Austin. KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard.

ECHO’s Vice President of Quality Assurance, Sarah Duzinski, told KXAN her organization has observed the Point in Time Count numbers seem to track with the county’s population growth over time and result in a per capita number that remains relatively constant.

“So what that’s telling us is that the work that we’re doing is making an impact, as the population of Travis County is growing and the and the homeless population is growing in conjunction with that, we’re staying on top of it by keeping that rate constant,” she said.

A graph depicting clients experiencing homelessness housed by ECHO and community partners from 2017 through 2019. Graph courtesy ECHO.

Prior to this year’s count results, ECHO worked with the city and community groups to get 2,171 people experiencing homelessness housed in 2019, through programs like permanent supportive housing, rapid rehousing, and minimal housing assistance. That number is a 7% increase over the number of people housed in 2018 and reflects the largest number of people experiencing homelessness Austin has housed in a single year.

The road to housing

Those housed through these efforts include people like 64-year-old Stephen Blair. Blair became homeless in Austin fifteen years ago and cycled in and out of homelessness in the years following.

KXAN met Blair in 2019 during the Point in Time count when volunteers found him at a bridge beneath MoPac where he slept. Austin Mayor Steve Adler was there and bonded with Blair over having the same first name. Adler had seen Blair at this same spot the year prior.

Stephen Blair in 2019 while he was experiencing homelessness and being counted for Austin’s Point in Time Count. (KXAN Photo/Alyssa Goard).

At that time, Blair said his backpack had been stolen and his ID card along with it, which was a problem because he needed an ID to apply for a job or an apartment. He didn’t have a location where an ID could be shipped to if he applied for a new one. Blair identified himself as a chef by trade and told the mayor what he wanted most was a place to stay in and cook.

“So next year this time maybe I’ll visit you in your apartment?” Adler asked Blair. 

“I’ll cook you a good meal,” Blair said to Adler. “I’ll cook all of you a good meal,” Blair said to all the volunteers. 

But when the next year came around, Blair was still homeless, he was counted in the 2020 count. People he had met through these Point in Time counts over time helped connect him to services.

KXAN spoke with Blair Tuesday from his new apartment at Integral Care’s permanent supportive housing at Terrace at Oak Springs. This housing connects him with a caseworker, employment services, and counseling.

Blair said the connections he had made from the count helped him get in line for housing, and this spring he finally qualified.

“I got everything you can think of for an apartment, I don’t ask to use nothing, I just use it!” he exclaimed.

Stephen Blair speaks with KXAN over a video call from his new apartment at Integral Care’s Terrace at Oak Springs, which offers permanent supportive housing. Blair had been homeless on and off in Austin for fifteen years and recently qualified for housing. (Zoom Screenshot/ Alyssa Goard).

Now that he has his own place, Blair doesn’t think he will fall back into homelessness again.

“Homeless is real hard,” he said. “Because people don’t want to help somebody.”

He said in the past he faced fear and judgment from others because of his homelessness.

“I got a mind up here that understands more than most people think I do,” he said, gesturing to his head.

But now that he doesn’t have to worry about having a roof over his head, he can focus on his new goal: finding a job. He would like to get a job cooking again and looks forward doing more cooking with the food stamps he has just recieved.

“What do you like to eat? Steak? Lasanga? Spaghetti?” he offered.

Blair believes it mattered that he was counted. He believes people got to know his face and story a little more and lent him a hand.

“What made the difference? Finding meeting good people like you that know what the word help means,” he said.

“The clearest picture yet”

ECHO believes this year’s count offers “the clearest picture yet” of homelessness in the Austin area.

A graphic depicting the number of people experiencing homelessness in Austin-Travis County counted in ECHO’s 2020 Point in Time Count. Graphic courtesy ECHO).

The count was carried out on the early morning hours of January 25, finding 2,506 people experiencing homelessness and 1,574 people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in Austin-Travis County.

The number of people experiencing sheltered homelessness decreased in this year’s count, which ECHO attributes to the two major downtown shelters (ARCH and Salvation Army) switching to a housing-focused approach where they serve fewer people but put more energy towards getting those people enrolled in services and connected to housing. ECHO noted a pipe burst at a downtown shelter on the night of the count meant that an additional 25 people did not wind up on the sheltered count list.

In ECHO’s data for the previous ten years, the total number of people experiencing homelessness during the count hovered between 1,832 at its lowest (2015) and 2,362 at its highest (2011). Over those 10 years, the number of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness during the count has ranged as low as 448 (2014) to as high as 1,086 (2018).

Both the total number of people experiencing homelessness during the 2020 count, and the number of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness, were higher than any count in the previous ten years.

ECHO maintains that there are multiple reasons for those increases beyond what meets the eye.

A graph depicting the total numbers of people experiencing homelessness in Austin-Travis County during Point in Time counts from 2011 through 2020. Graph Courtesy ECHO.

For the first time, Austin’s Point in Time count this year was not carried by jotting down notes with pen and paper in the dark hours of the early morning. Instead, ECHO used a company called Hyperion which allowed them to use a web-based survey volunteers carried on their phones. Not only did more people respond to this survey, Duzinski said, but this new technology allowed volunteers to carry out the survey faster and with better location accuracy.

ECHO staff noted that the web-based app removed possibilities for human error with messy handwriting or misstated addresses, automatically collecting geographic coordinates for every entry volunteers made.

This year, Duzinski explained, ECHO divided the PIT count up into 74 sections rather than 36 as in years prior, which the team also believes led to a more accurate count.

Duzinski added, “probably what may have had the largest impact [on the increased count], you had a 39% increase in volunteers, we had 886 volunteers this year which is more volunteers than we have ever had in the history of the PIT count.”

Volunteers fill a church in preparation to carry out Austin’s 2020 Point in Time Count. (Photo Courtesy Alesandra Dominguez).

She believes all of those factors made the 2020 count significantly more thorough than in years past.

Matt Mollica, the Executive Director of ECHO, noted that Austin’s decision to repeal previous bans on camping, sitting, and lying in most public places made homelessness more visible in Austin through the tents and enclosures people began living in.

“And the ordinances definitely changed where people are being seen in terms of experiencing their homelessness,” Mollica said, suggesting that because people without homes are more visible, it was easier for volunteers to count them.

“So that certainly, I think, changed the number of unsheltered people experiencing homelessness in our community and aided in that count for us to get a more accurate count of that population in our community.”

Where people are experiencing homelessness

The 2020 Point in Time Count data also indicates that homelessness in Austin is still concentrated around Austin’s urban core where Austin City Council District 9 is.

A graphic showing the proportion of people experiencing homelessness counted in each Austin City Council District during the 2019 and 2020 Point in Time Counts. (Graphic Courtesy ECHO).
ECHO graph where you first experienced homelessness
A graphic from ECHO’s 2020 point in time count depicting where respondents first experienced homelessness. (Graphic Courtesy ECHO).

Claire Burrus, a research and evaluation analyst with ECHO, explained that in the 2019 and 2020 counts, ECHO has noticed less of a concentration of people experiencing homelessness in Austin’s urban core.

“Which means we are seeing folks a little bit more spread out and less concentrated around the center than we have in the past,” Burrus said. “The idea that downtown is the only hub I would say is inaccurate, although it is the most centralized area where we’re seeing a high concentration.”

ECHO noted that a “slightly increasing” number of people in this year’s count became homeless for the first time in Austin. 63.4% of those responding to the 2020 Count said that Austin-Travis County was the first place they became homeless and 19.4% said that the first place they became homeless was somewhere else in Texas.

Demographics of Austin’s homeless population

In the 2020 Count, ECHO reported that the number of children under the age of 18 experiencing homelessness decreased by 3.7% and the proportion of people experiencing homelessness who identify as Hispanic or Latino decreased by 3.2%.

The data from this year shows that Black Austinites continue to make up a disproportionately large number of the area’s homeless population. ECHO explained that African Americans represent more than 1 in 3 people counted this year but represent less than 1 in 10 individuals in the total population of Austin-Travis County.

A graphic showing the race and ethnicity of the respondents to ECHO’s 2020 Point in Time County survey. Graphic Courtesy ECHO.

ECHO calls this disparity “unacceptable” and is asking for urgent, community wide action to address it.

Quiana Fisher, with Caritas of Austin as well as ECHO’s Racial Equity Task Group, offered her suggestions for how this action could take place:

“I think that we begin to attack racial disparities by acknowledging that systems (even social service systems) were created with the idea that not all people were/ are deserving of services,” Fisher said in an email. “Service providers have an obligation to do better because years of civil rights fighting has called us to do better and THIS data challenges us to do more. It is no longer enough for service providers (and those with power) to say that ‘we will treat people equally’. While equality asks us to treat people the same, equity focuses on creating policies that acknowledge the injustices of the past and commits us to righting the ship towards justice and change.”

A spotlight on homelessness in Austin

People experiencing homelessness beneath I-35 in downtown Austin. (KXAN Photo/Alyssa Goard).

This data comes after a year in which homelessness in Austin has been thrust into the spotlight.

Austin’s city council voted to repeal a ban on camping, sitting, and lying down in public last June in an effort to decriminalize homelessness. That policy action seemed to galvanize heated public debate and later was met with concerns from police and threats from Texas Governor Greg Abbott.

The council partially reinstated some of the old bans on public camping months later, but the increased visibility of encampments and the increased attention to policies around homelessness remain. A group called Save Austin Now has been gathering signatures in an effort to reinstate bans on camping, sitting, and lying down in public and issued a press release Tuesday suggesting that the increases noted in the PIT count were evidence the bans should be reinstated.

ECHO does not support the idea of reinstating those bans. Duzinski said, “putting the ban back in place and putting people back in hiding is not going to address homelessness, its just going to put the same number of people behind the trees and really hamper our efforts to get people into our HMIS database and our coordinated entry systems.”

This year in addition to the policy debate over the ordinances around camping, sitting, and lying down in public, Austin also saw the launch this year of several other significant changes around addressing homelessness.

Austin’s council approved a homeless shelter for South Austin in June, then scrapped that plan in November, beginning a new strategy of purchasing motels to use as homeless shelters.

Integral Care opened up the Terrace at Oak Springs which has 50 units of permanent supportive housing where people transitioning out of chronic homelessness can live.

Beds at Salvation Army’s Rathgeber Center. (KXAN Photo/Alyssa Goard).

The Salvation Army of Austin opened up its Rathgeber Center for Families in February, providing an additional 212 shelter beds.

The city has also activated a new vision for Austin’s Resource Center for the Homeless and is on track to effectively end youth homelessness by the end of 2020.

A need for housing

ECHO noted that in the past decade, Austin and Travis County have increased their focus on getting those without homes permanent housing.

Every year since 2017, ECHO said more clients have been housed by this system than ever before. ECHO believes this “housing first” approach contributes to these people being successfully housed.

Volunteer Andrew Willard surveys people experiencing homelessness at a tent in Austin near Rainey Street. This survey annual Point in Time Count, a census carried out in communities across the country of people experiencing homelessness. (KXAN Photo/Alyssa Goard).

Housing first” is a policy the federal government has encouraged in addressing homelessness for the past few years which aims to get people experiencing homelessness housed quickly without preconditions and barriers to entry, like sobriety, treatment, or service participation. The city of Austin has made “housing first” a pillar of its homelessness response strategy and so has ECHO.

But the ideological divide over homelessness extends far beyond Austin. Robert Marbut, who was named executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness by President Donald Trump’s administration in December 2019, has called into question this focus on “housing first” strategy.

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, who does support a “housing first” approach, has since been hired as a consultant for the City of Austin and has been advising local leaders as well as groups like ECHO on how to support those experiencing homelessness during the coronavirus pandemic.

Point in Time Count volunteer Andrew Willard speaks with a person experiencing homelessness in Austin. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

Mollica’s colleagues say now that they have compiled the Point in Time Count data, they will be using it to prepare for an expected wave of people experiencing homelessness “as a result of the high cost of housing and the economic fallout from the pandemic.”

ECHO notes that those who don’t have a home are especially vulnerable to contracting the virus and serious health complications that can follow.

“The COVID-19 pandemic illustrates more than ever that housing is a healthcare intervention and why we need to scale up permanent housing resources to meet current and future needs in our community,” Mollica said.