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Council hears strategy for Permanent Supportive Housing program

Monday, October 4, 2010 by Michael Kanin

The nonprofit Corporation for Supportive Housing has unveiled the strategy by which it would like to implement the city’s effort to house the homeless in Austin. Last week, the organization’s Texas director, Dianna Lewis, detailed for Council members the hard numbers behind the drive for what is called permanent supportive housing and the spending she thinks it will take to get it done.


Council members seemed happy with the depth of Lewis’ presentation. Still, questions lingered about community buy-in and the best way to prove the effectiveness of the program.


The number of homeless in the Austin area is, by various estimates, between 3,000 and 6,000 people in an average year. The more recent survey, by a group called the Ending Community Homelessness Organization, performed a city-funded survey in 2008 that counted about 3,400 homeless in Austin. The Community Action Network, based on the number of people served in 2006, estimated about 6,200. Richard Troxell with the Austin-based advocacy group House the Homeless told In Fact Daily his most recent count was about 4,000. 


The program Lewis is proposing would aim at housing about 350 of Austin’s homeless, about 10 percent of the lowest estimates.


According to Lewis’ plan, the City of Austin would invest $9 million in the program over the next four years. That money would trigger $34 million in additional funds. After that, the city can expect to spend between $600,000 and $700,000 annually, should it elect to continue the program.


Permanent supportive housing, according to the city’s Public Information Office, “provides supportive services that address the root causes of homelessness, including mental health disorders, addictions, and financial instability.”


The Corporation for Supportive Housing is a national nonprofit with outposts in 11 states. According to its web site, it provides “advocacy, expertise, leadership, and financial resources to make it easier to create and operate supportive housing.”


Lewis told the Council that the money would go to buy or rehabilitate 250 units and lease 100 more. She said that homeless people eligible for the program would be prioritized in two ways. “The first is a frequent users approach. These are folks who are frequent users of multiple (municipal) systems, or who may be extremely frequent users of single systems,” she said.


She noted that this method would be the one that she and her colleagues primarily use. As for the systems she referenced, those are such civic institutions as emergency rooms, local jails, EMS facilities, or municipal courts.


“The second approach is something that I’ll loosely call the vulnerability approach, and that’s because there are a couple of tools that are currently being used or being contemplated in the community that really look on risk factors for early morbidity while on the streets or (the potential) to be victimized while on the streets,” Lewis continued.


“I think this is an important way for us to focus really on the folks who are hitting our system and creating what we hope will be substantial cost avoidance, but also not forgetting those folks who may not be engaging in services so much that they desperately need housing.” 


All told, 350 individuals would benefit from the first four years of the project.


Turning at the hard numbers, Lewis argued that permanent supportive housing would cut into city costs for emergency medical services and crime. Travis County would also benefit, seeing a reduction in jail costs and its Central Health expenditures.


Council Member Chris Riley questioned Lewis about the basic nature of the units themselves. “I see that we’re planning to lease 100 units and to build or rehab…at least 250 units,” he said. “Typically, it seems like new housing tends to be more expensive than existing housing. Why would we aim to be building or rehabbing 250 new units as opposed to making use of the existing stock of housing?”


Lewis said, “The benefit of leasing is that it can be fast…and there is not the capital investment. The downside(s) from our perspective are multiple.”


Here she cited the troubles of a tight rental market, where landlords might be less willing to participate in the program that would seek to work with them about price. She added that such a market would make it “harder to set those units aside,” meaning that the rental solution could be less stable.


She also said that “historically…the units that we invest in from a capital standpoint…tend to be better quality.”


In what seemed like an effort to get to the open issue of just where the units will be placed, Council Member Laura Morrison called for a high degree of neighborhood buy-in. “You talked a lot about the partnerships that are needed for this to be successful,” she said. “What I want to highlight is the issue that we need to include as partners the neighborhoods in this city.”


She cited an Austin Neighborhood Council resolution that called for “our affordable housing and our really low income housing really needs to be spread around town.”


“I’m proud that that organization has taken that stance,” she added. “I think that an appropriate step to take now would be to go to the Austin Neighborhoods Council to say ‘help us figure out how to do this right’ because I don’t think that we as a city government can figure that out—I don’t think we’ve figured that out yet.”


Council Member Bill Spelman zeroed in on the statistics that Lewis would use to prove her case. “At least some of the argument in favor of doing this is going to be related to the cost avoidance,” he said. “I’m persuaded from the litany of figures you gave us earlier that the first 350 units, if we choose the people who are most likely to go to the ER, most likely to be incarcerated, and so on that the benefits of providing this are going to be much in excess of the costs—and any good evaluation should be able to document that without too much trouble.


“As we increase the size of the population served from 350 to 700, to 1,000, and so on, at some point it seems to me we’re going to shift gears and talk about the inherent benefits of providing housing to people and not the costs avoided,” Spelman said.


The implication is that though the first 350 people into Lewis’ program might be perfect models of the cost savings portion of her argument, as she got deeper into her desired population, that calculation might become more cloudy.


Though she couldn’t give Spelman a direct answer, Lewis agreed with his statement. “I don’t think that we quite know how to couch that conversation in terms of permanent supportive housing….yet,” she said.


The next steps in the implementation of the plan will include the creation of a leadership group that will aim to bring in various partners who will provide guidance—and, city officials hope, funding for the project. City staff is also developing a format for the request for proposal that will be issued as it moves to acquire the first 350 units. That document should be ready in three or four weeks.

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