Austin street team helps homeless avoid jail time, costly ER visits

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — New numbers published by the city of Austin show that the city’s Homeless Outreach Street Team (HOST) is helping an increasing number of people. The numbers also highlight how this outreach is helping divert people experiencing homelessness from jail time and costly visits to emergency rooms.

Homeless Outreach Street Team Members visit people experiencing homelessness in Austin. (Courtesy City of Austin).

The city says the goal is for HOST members to step in to help people experiencing homelessness before they “are put into situations that typically result in admission to an emergency room or psychiatric facility, or an arrest or citation.” HOST also aims to build trust with people experiencing homelessness and link them with services that can help them gain stability. The team does a range of things including assisting with medication needs, providing security, helping to apply for housing programs, and assisting them with getting an ID.

“The people we help are a wide range of individuals and every single one of them needs something unique to help them get back on their feet,” said Amber Price, ATCEMS Clinical Specialist and HOST member. “Each shift, our goal is to reach out and find as many people as we can, move them into a clinic, and get them connected to everything they need. This program has already helped so many of Austin’s most vulnerable people.”

The HOST team is made up of nine members with support from Austin Police Department, Austin -Travis County Emergency Medical Services (ATCEMS), Downtown Austin Community Court, Integral Care, and the Downtown Austin Alliance. The team started with a pilot program in the summer of 2016 and became an ongoing city program starting in October of 2016.

Over that time, the city reports that HOST has made 7,327 visits and connected people with medical and mental health services hundreds of times.

YearNumber of HOST visitsNumber of people helped
20171,369784
20182,388798
20193,5701,197

ATCEMS Assistant Chief Andy Hofmeister believes this increase in the number of visits and the number of people helped has occurred as their team has gotten to know people living on the streets better.

“I think some of it is more people are willing to engage and have learned about HOST,” Hofmeister said. “The individuals that are experiencing homelessness have heard more about HOST from — I think — some of their neighbors and so I think there have been more opportunities to engage.”

The work, HOST is doing, he added can make a difference in whether people wind up in a hospital or in the criminal justice system.

Hofmeister explained HOST has, “the ability to connect them to services to prevent their health from deteriorating to where they need an emergency room or to prevent the issue from arising that may put them behind bars.”

Over the past three years, the city says HOST has:

  • Linked people to medical services 797 times
  • Linked people with mental health services 505 times
  • Diverted people from high-cost hospital or psychiatric emergency rooms more than 350 times
  • Diverted people from jail more than 160 times

The city believes that these connections the HOST team has made for people experiencing homelessness save taxpayers money and also save money for people experiencing homelessness. 

A city spokesperson notes that while healthcare costs can be difficult to estimate, the Health Care Cost Insitute (an independent, nonprofit research institute) has recent numbers showing that the average person’s visit to the emergency room will result in a charge of around $1,400.

With booking fees in Travis County per city prisoner at around $200 dollars and with additional daily costs for inmates, the city estimates that hundreds of dollars are saved by preventing people from being incarcerated.

HOST also recently helped Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department conduct a survey of encampments at city parks, assisting in linking people in those parks with services.

Integral Care explained that HOST connects people with mental healthcare, often mental healthcare that Integral Care is providing.

“HOST also engages with people experiencing homelessness who were previously in services with Integral Care, and helps them reconnect to Integral Care programs and services,” a spokesperson for Integral Care noted.

“Our incredible HOST Team are the first responders for people experiencing homelessness,” said Lori Pampilo Harris, Austin’s Homeless Strategy Officer in a city release. “Going to where they are, identifying their crises, and determining how best to help is often the first step to getting someone on the path to a more stable future. By intervening when things are critical, in the way HOST does, we can divert individuals away from costly emergency services such as ER and jail, towards longer-term solutions, and ultimately end their housing and health crisis.”

Currently, HOST serves the general downtown area and Assistant Chief Hofmeister said it’s “absolutely” possible the team could expand to other areas of the city in the future. Already, many of the partner groups that make up HOST have their own operations separately helping people experiencing homelessness in different parts of town.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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