Not enough beds for Austin’s unsheltered homeless, provider data suggests

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — KXAN analysis of recent data from Austin’s homeless service providers indicates Austin does not have enough beds to house all the unsheltered individuals experiencing homelessness in the city.

This analysis takes into account the available types of beds for the homeless community, such as shelter beds, permanent supportive housing beds, and ProLodge beds through the city of Austin.

Austin homelessness by the numbers

According to Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), the most recent complete data on the number of people experiencing homelessness in Austin comes from the 2020 Point in Time Count, a snapshot of homelessness in Austin submitted to the federal government.

ECHO coordinates the count each year and due to concerns about the pandemic, ECHO has been granted an exception from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to not conduct an in-person count in 2021 and to instead rely on federally required data on homeless services.

ECHO anticipates having updated 2021 Point in Time County numbers to share for Austin in the coming weeks, but until then the 2020 numbers are the most accurate, the nonprofit says.

People experiencing homelessness in Austin

Total2,506
Unsheltered1,574
Sheltered932
Source: 2020 Point in Time Count, ECHO

Beds for people experiencing homelessness in Austin

Occupied2,989
Unoccupied296
Total3,285
Source: 2020 Housing Inventory Count, ECHO. Includes Emergency Shelter, Permanent Supportive Housing, Rapid Rehousing, Transitional Housing, Safe Haven, and Other Permanent Housing Source.

City of Austin ProLodge beds

Occupied~220
Rooms unavailable due to cleaning/ repairs60-70
Unoccupied50-60
Total340
Source: City of Austin data for late January 2021

As part of the public health response to COVID-19, the City of Austin has been operating ProLodges, which are hotels used as non-congregated shelters for people at high risk for COVID-19 who need a safe place to stay.

The city noted that while most people accessing the ProLodge beds are experiencing homelessness, the ProLodges were not set up to be homeless shelters but rather an emergency response to COVID-19.

Average length of stay at different programs in Austin

Emergency Shelter65 days
Permanent Supportive Housing1,263 days
Rapid Re-Housing312 days
ProLodges114 days
Source: Homeless Management Information System, ECHO

Unoccupied beds available for people experiencing homelessness in Austin

Rapid Re-housing, Permanent Supportive Housing, Emergency Shelter,
Temporary Housing, Safe Haven, and Other Permanent Housing
296
ProLodges50-60
Total346-356
Estimated unsheltered homeless population1,574
Sources: 2020 Housing Inventory Count, ECHO, City of Austin, 2020 Point in Time Count

All Rapid Re-Housing beds are at capacity — all the time

Between beds designated for people experiencing homelessness and the city’s ProLodge beds, the data suggests that on any given night between 346 and 356 beds are available for Austin’s homeless community. While not an official part of the homeless response system, the state sanctioned homeless encampment in Austin where around 150 people live has also been reported to be at full capacity. Based on the 2020 Point in Time Count which found 1,574 people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in Austin-Travis County, that would leave between 1,228 and 1,218 individuals without a shelter option.

While ECHO’s Executive Director Matt Mollica acknowledges that due to rising unaffordability and lack of housing options in Austin, the city’s unsheltered homeless population has likely increased above that 1,574 number since the 2020 count, the reality remains the same: there aren’t enough beds available for those sleeping on Austin’s streets.

Some of the program options for people experiencing homelessness often see people staying in those beds for months to years, Mollica noted, pointing to the data on the average length of stay. (See chart above.)

“You can see that our Rapid Re-Housing numbers, people stay pretty much a year, our Permanent Supportive Housing numbers, people stay for many years over and over again, so there’s not new capacity in those systems each year,” Mollica said.

“Those systems are all at capacity,” he added, “all the time.”

According to the 2020 Housing Inventory Count numbers for Austin:

  • Of the 905 Rapid Re-Housing beds, 905 were occupied (100%)
  • Of the 1,161 Permanent Supportive Housing beds, 958 were occupied (82.5%)
  • Of the 757 Emergency Shelter Beds, 674 were occupied (89%)

“In order to impact the number of unsheltered people, we need to impact that capacity because our current system won’t house all those folks. In fact we have more people entering the system than we do exiting the system,” Mollica continued. “And so we’ll see the numbers go up and up each year because we don’t have beds opening up to take those folks into housing at all.”

There is currently a proposition before voters in Austin on the May ballot which would reinstate a ban on camping, sitting, and lying down in and near downtown Austin and the University of Texas, which would make public camping by people experiencing homelessness a criminal offense again.

The Austin City Council repealed the city’s previous camping ban in 2019 in an effort to decriminalize homelessness. That decision spurred heated debate about how best to address homelessness. Public encampments have become more visible since that decision.

Not enough beds for those experiencing homelessness if camping ban passes

If Proposition B passes in May and camping became a criminal offense, would there be enough beds for people camping downtown to go to if they were asked to move?

Mollica says the answer is an emphatic “no.”

Sarah Duzinski, the vice president of Quality Assurance for ECHO, agreed.

“No, there would not be sufficient housing for the people who would be living without shelter in Austin, we have a deficit right now and the needs are not currently being met,” Duzinski said. “We need more inventory, we need more programming, we need more capacity building with service providers.

In Duzinski’s eyes, the answer is for the Austin community to significantly increase the number of beds available for people experiencing homelessness.

“I would say that we really need to be willing to scale up as a community,” she said. “It’s one thing to just make camping illegal, and hope that people will go away. It’s another thing to actually find the opportunities and resources to house them so that they can be functioning members of our community and have a dignified existence.”

Jay “Puzzle” Simmons has been experiencing homelessness in Austin since 2017. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard. March 30, 2021.)

A man named Jay Simmons who goes by the name “Puzzle” has been experiencing homelessness in Austin since 2017. He told KXAN that he is trying to get help acquiring an ID so that he can get on the waitlist for housing programs. Puzzle said he has enrolled in programs but has needed help getting the ID documents necessary to access certain types of housing.

Puzzle noted he would like to see apartments in Austin with vacant rooms open up their spaces to house people like him. Coincidentally, a new program with ECHO and Austin Justice Coalition is working with Austin property managers to help lower barriers to housing in available units.

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