More volunteers needed for annual count of Austin’s homeless

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) says they need more volunteers to sign up for their annual Point in Time count of the people experiencing homelessness in Austin. 

ECHO organizes the count, which is happening on January 26 this year from roughly 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. Currently, ECHO has more than 400 volunteers signed up to assist, but they will need around 200 more to cover all the areas in Travis County. ECHO executive director Ann Howard explained that having those numbers of people allows them to be prepared in case some people call out sick or have an emergency. 

“Each team is assigned a geographic area, a specific quadrant or a sector, and they have a team lead who goes out in advance and really maps out the area so we know where we’re likely to find individuals or where there might be shelter,” Howard explained. 

“We’re pretty good at this, we’ve been doing it for a while, we have volunteers who come back year after year to do the count, and we make notes from last year,” she added. 

This count is required each year by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in order for cities to be eligible for federal funding related to homelessness. But it is also used to give local leaders an idea of how many people sleep unsheltered on the streets and where exactly they are located. 

The 2018 count documented a five percent increase in people experiencing homelessness. According to those numbers, 2,147 people experience homelessness in Austin on any given night.Additionally, the number of people in 2018 sleeping unsheltered on the streets was 1,014, the highest of all the last eight years.  

Bree Williams, the director of community housing at ECHO, wil help out with the Point in Time count for her 6th time this year. 

“For me personally, it’s a human experience and letting everything wash away for a minute and connect with someone and treat them with dignity and respect,” Williams said. 

She explained that volunteers go through a 2-3 hour training to help them understand what they’ll be doing during the count. On the day of the count, they will meet up with a team of at least three people who will cover an assigned area. 

“You’re gonna have folks who have a lot of experience on your team who know how to navigate this process,” Williams said. “And you can let them know, ‘Hey, this is my first year and I just want to observe, I want to hold the flashlight.'”

In the last couple of years, Austin’s elected officials, business leaders and community groups have made a priority of addressing the “public health and safety crisis” of ongoing homelessness in the area. So far, the community has been trying different strategies to get people the help they need and access to long term housing through law enforcement efforts, social services and public-private partnerships. 

Williams hopes the count can give city leaders the information they need to build on this momentum. 

“2019 is the year that we move the needle on ending homelessness in Austin,” she said. “The entire community is having this conversation in Austin right now and we know how critical the data is.”

Austin City Council Member Ann Kitchen explained that in addition to the eight million dollars in federal funding this count helps the city to secure, it gives she and her fellow council members a sense of where Austin’s homeless actually are. 

“That’s important when we’re trying to look at our budget and align our investments and how we’re spending our dollars and what the need,” Kitchen explained. 

Kitchen has volunteered to be part of this count for several years.

“It seems that we are seeing more folks living under bridges for example, living on the streets, we seem to be seeing more of that in District 5 for example,” she added. 

But Kitchen noted that while she’s heard about more homeless individuals living in her south Austin district, she won’t actually know if that’s true until the count is done. 

“This will help us think about that and actually see if the numbers are actually different than they were last year,” she explained. 

Kitchen said that in the upcoming year, she wants to focus on how city policy can allow for more temporary, immediate housing for people experiencing homelessness in Austin. 

“People who are living on the streets are there for a lot of different reasons, and the solutions ot their situations require a lot of different kinds of options,” Kitchen said. “But what’s fundamental to them all is the need for immediate housing.”

If you are interested in volunteering, you can sign up here. 

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