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Neighborhood leaders consider housing for homeless

Thursday, October 28, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

Council members Sheryl Cole and Laura Morrison were back at the Austin Neighborhoods Council last night, looking for support for permanent housing for the homeless.


As Cole reminded the local homeowners, it was an ANC resolution on supportive housing back in 2006 that got the ball rolling on the topic. That also happens to be the year that Morrison was president of the group, prior to her Council run.


So both women returned last night to ask the city’s most active neighborhood association to be involved in a working group intended to flesh out the city’s plans to build 350 supportive housing units over the next four years.


Evidence of homelessness is not confined to downtown, Cole said. The homeless can be found up and down the Interstate 35 corridor and MoPac, as well as living along the city’s creek beds. And while places like the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless are intended to provide a brief respite of 60 to 90 days for a handful of the city’s 4,000 or so homeless, some residents end up residing there for five years or more, Cole said.


“Permanent supportive housing is for those who have already been in an emergency shelter,” Cole said. “It gives them services they may need so they can transition back into society.”


A comprehensive plan with a strong governing board in Miami has reduced the homeless population there from around 8,000 to 1,000 people, Cole said. Cole said it is even more important to have broad buy-in from neighborhood associations when the goal is to scatter supportive-housing projects, possibly with 60 to 80 units, in neighborhoods around the city.


Morrison emphasized that supportive housing could be an almost break-even financial proposition for the city when measured against the cost of city health and jail services expended on the chronically homeless. She outlined ways to define the neediest among the homeless and the long-term success that supportive housing has provided in some cities.


“What we’re here today doing is asking you to be partners and take a leadership role in figuring out how to make this a reality,” Morrison said. “I think we all conceptually agree that supportive housing should be spread throughout the city, but we have not necessarily succeeded in making that happen.”


A community dialogue is necessary to get the plan right, Morrison said, and concerns need to be laid on the table early.


Given the meeting’s time constraints, the two Council members could take only a handful of questions from the audience. East Side residents raised concerns about the Marshall Arms Apartments renovation project (See In Fact Daily, Oct. 22), which would place supportive-housing units in close proximity to hardcore drug and alcohol use.


Other members of the audience expressed concern regarding how strong the city’s safety net for supportive housing would be. In many cases, supportive housing, while permanent, caters to people still dealing with drug and alcohol abuse problems. East Side homeowner David Thomas said the idea is to provide a stairway to self-sufficiency, not a place to dump people. Council members agreed that would be a clear point for discussion.


Cole said she and Morrison would meet to flesh out the specifics of the working group, which she considers to be a standing, ongoing endeavor to oversee progress.

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