New data indicates slight decrease in Austin’s homeless population, for now

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — New data from a local nonprofit indicates the number of people experiencing homelessness in Austin has remained relatively stable since 2019 and even decreased slightly this past year.

Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) said that’s partly due to federal and local eviction moratoriums and an increase in the city’s protective lodging.

“It’s like a snow globe that’s been shaken,” said Mario Ramon, who became homeless in April. “Everything’s moving around, and I can’t grab it.”

He’s still trying to piece his life together after losing his partner, his job and then his home.

“I try to find a safe place to park for the night. And then during the day I usually try to leave that place and go somewhere else until the night again,” said Ramon, who is now living in his pickup truck.

“I didn’t want to go to any shelters, because I didn’t want to be around any groups of people. I hadn’t been vaccinated yet,” he explained.

That need for distance is one of the reasons why ECHO said visibility of homelessness increased over the last year.

While some felt more comfortable on the streets than inside facilities, shelters also had to reduce capacity to accommodate Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

The CDC also recommended authorities not disturb encampments if there were no available housing options.

“So that allowed people to remain in encampments for longer, and the longer they’re in encampments, the more belongings accumulate and increase. That increases the visibility of campsites,” said Sarah Duzinski, ECHO Quality Assurance VP, during a presentation of the group’s data on Friday.

But the group is concerned numbers might actually increase once the local eviction moratorium expires in August.

“That has really helped prevent a rise in homelessness, and it’s also we think a bit of a sleeping giant.” Duzinski said.

Duzinksi said other factors that may push numbers up include the end of COVID-19 unemployment benefits and increasing rents.

A final factor has to do with the type of data ECHO is using, which is from the local Homeless Management Information System (HMIS). The system includes information from people who have interacted with the Homelessness Response System at a certain point in time, as opposed to PIT counts, when volunteers count people on the streets.

Therefore, Duzinski said, they may see an increase in people who may not have felt comfortable engaging in services during the pandemic, and therefore weren’t documented, now start doing so.

ECHO said both the HMIS and PIT methods are required every year by the federal government, but the agency received a waiver for PIT counts due to COVID-19 safety concerns. This year’s data report compares HMIS counts since 2019.

ECHO said they don’t think Proposition B, or Austin’s camping ban, is a solution to homelessness.

The Matt Mollica said they will likely have to shift their focus once the ban enters its next phases of ticketing and possibly jailing.

He said their staff may have to deal with more day-to-day crises like resolving tickets or bailing folks out of jail rather than focusing on long-term housing solutions.

It’s something Ramon is also worried about.

“I don’t want to end up in jail,” he said. He said he plans to try and hide from authorities until he can find stable housing.

“It’s kind of just the hide and seek with the authorities,” he said.

A disparity among the homeless community

ECHO found Black people, people with disabilities and veterans are overrepresented in the homeless population for Austin-Travis County:

  • Black people make up about 8% of the population in Travis County but account for 37% of the area’s homeless population.
  • People with disabilities also make up 8% of the general population but nearly 70% of those experiencing homelessness.
  • Veterans make up only 5% of the population but account for 9% of the homeless population.

You can read ECHO’s full report here.

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