Homelessness 2.0: How COVID-19 has changed Austin’s homeless crisis

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AUSTIN (KXAN) – One of the groups hardest hit by the pandemic: Austin’s homeless. Facing starvation and possible infection, the city has offered up new services to prevent a crisis. “This might be a silver lining to what is really a brutal time in the community, in the nation,” says Amy Price, Director of Development and Communications with Front Steps, the non-profit responsible for managing the ARCH downtown.

The pandemic‘s “silver lining”

As the stay-at-home order went into effect, many essential services that Austin’s homeless community rely on shuttered, including fast-food establishments, churches, and soup kitchens. “We were running into people who hadn’t been able to shower in a week or more,” says Max Moscoe, Community Engagement Coordinator with The Other Ones Foundation.

In late March, The Other Ones Foundation, a local non-profit that offers employment and services to Austin’s homeless, partnered with the city to send a mobile hygiene clinic around Austin. The clinic provided showers, toilets, and free meals. Since then, the partnership has led to a total of five of these clinics placed around the city: two in downtown, one in south Austin, one that is mobile, and one at Camp RATT, the state-sanctioned homeless camp that the Other Ones Foundation has taken the responsibility of service coordinator.

This hygiene clinic is just one of the services the city began offering at that time, and continues to offer. The city began delivering free meals and masks to the homeless. It also rented out four “lodges”, hotel rooms for at-risk homeless people, that are currently at capacity with around 270 occupants, according to Austin Public Health Assistant Director Adrienne Sturrup. Case workers are available for those staying at the lodges.

Earlier this week, the city revealed it has received a $3 million federal grant to help support the programs.

“I’m hoping that some of these things we’re doing in a humanitarian crisis get people into better shape,” says Price. “And give them more time in the day to sit down with a case manager.”

Long-term effects of COVID-19 on the homeless

Will that happen? Despite the new services, Major Lewis Reckline with the Salvation Army is concerned the pandemic may lead to the homeless avoiding shelters, where many case workers are available, because of the close proximity of so many people. “To be in an environment like ours, where we can hold a couple hundred (homeless), that can be a little scary sometimes,” says Reckline.

He may not be wrong. Price says the ARCH is seeing less clients than it did at the same time last year.

Moscoe believes that the services in use now could lead to better outcomes for many, including seeing them get off the streets. “If you’re eating well and sleeping well, you’re going to be able to go through whatever trails you’re going through in a better way.”

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