Next phase of Austin’s homelessness initiative underway

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The City of Austin helped move 15 people living on city parkland in south Austin to a temporary bridge shelter Tuesday.

The city says this move kicked off Phase Two of Austin’s HEAL initiative, which aims to get people off the streets and into housing. HEAL stands for Housing-Focused Encampment Assistance Link.

Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey, who’s still in her first year in the role, gave an update on how the program is progressing.

She talked about homelessness efforts in the aftermath of the camping ban. Austin voters chose to reinstate the city’s camping ban in the May election.

“It’s been a tough few months for people who thought the implementation of the camping ordinance meant people weren’t going to be homeless anymore. But that wasn’t what the camping ordinance did,” Grey explained.

With people banned from sitting or lying down on public sidewalks and sleeping outdoors in and around downtown and the University of Texas at Austin campus, they’ve had to find other places to go.

“We are hearing anecdotally from our parks department that they are seeing more people move into our wooded areas and that includes our parklands,” Grey said.

But Austin is making progress. As part of Phase One of HEAL, which lasted from April to September, about 150 people were relocated from encampments to Austin’s two new bridge shelters.

“They offer more privacy and safety,” Grey said.

The city bought former hotels and motels and turned them into these bridge shelters where people can have a temporary home.

“People in these shelters are already connected with a housing resource, so they can start fairly quickly working with a case manager on permanent housing,” Grey continued.

Grey acknowledged in the beginning, it took a while to place some people. But now that they’ve visited priority encampments first identified under Phase One of HEAL this summer, the next phase will look at visiting parkland and flood-prone areas where people are staying.

“We are looking at targeting encampments, again, based on a health and safety assessment in those encampments,” Grey said.

An October presentation from Grey outlines a plan for different city departments to work together to weigh health and safety risks for each encampment. Some factors to be considered are access to hygiene resources, accumulated trash in the area, flood risk, wildfire risk and observed fire activity.

A coalition of homeless advocates and city leaders announced earlier this year the goal of housing 3,000 people in three years. That’s involving HEAL and several community partners the city has lined up.

The homelessness summit goal calls for $515 million over three years to pull it off. Previous city documents from late October showed $115 million was still needed to reach the funding goal.

Grey said in October more than half that total, $266 million, would be spent expanding the city’s affordable housing capacity. While this seems like a lot of money now, Grey previously said the units will be able to serve the city for decades.

Grey said for HEAL, the goal this first year is to help 200 people, but they will likely be able to help more than that.

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